Various Flavors of Ecuador

Our jaunt through Ecuador got off to a suspect start with a couple of days in Quito. While an interesting setting consisting of a sprawling city of various colored buildings across very green mountains, our primary focus soon became our safety. I won’t use this as an exercise in suspense – we are fine and had no bad experiences, but it seemed the first thing that everyone wanted to share with us. Having traveled through a handful of countries in South America thus far, I understand I must be careful and smart, but for some reason, Quito seemed to be more extreme. It’s still unclear whether it is indeed true, or whether the people are just more insistent on communicating it. Having the message pretty much pounding into our heads, we played it extra safe and took taxis (which are cheap) when going very far or going anywhere at night. As a result, we don’t have so many adventures or interesting experiences to report, but we can also say we experienced no harm nor theft. To sum it up, we wandered the historical part of town, visited a cathedral, ate dinner on the cute and lively Rotunda street, and experienced the horrid Mariscal district with house music pouring out of every bar we walked by started around 4pm. Our hostel was a nice exception to the general experience – Hostal Quito Cultural – housed in a quaint old building in the historical part of town with very friendly owners and an above average breakfast.

Things smoothed out from here as we made our way to Baños, a small touristed town known for its hot springs. We ventured out on a few day hikes, both times seeming to come to the end just in time for the rain to start. We also enjoyed a couple of meals at Stray Dog Brewpub, a rare find in Ecuador with different microbrews. I happily sampled their sour brown ale and IPA, while dad stuck to the stout and mom, of course, red wine.

From Baños we left for Canelos and our trek into the jungle to stay at Huella Verde, a couple cabañas owned by a Swiss guy and his Ecuadorian wife (who have the cutest son, Tiago). For me, the highlights were the hike through the jungle, relaxing in the hammocks, swimming in the river, and the impressive food prepared by the owners. I would never have expected to eat so well during a stay in the jungle.

We squeezed a few more adventures into the last few days of my parents’ trip, including a stay in an old, slightly run down hacienda, a visit to Quilatoa Lake, and a trip into an abyss for our last night in Papallacta. No joke, we drove for what seemed like an eternity (aka an hour) through windy roads in between mountains and enveloped in mist until we arrived at a rather impressive resort with hot springs outside of each room. I’ll say it was a nice way to end their stay. I was tempted to stay on by myself for another night but couldn’t quite justify the cost for just me.

Overall, it was a blast to be able to spend this time in Ecuador with my parents. I was continually impressed with their ability and willingness to “rough it” with me and travel closer to my style. On our last day I was inspired to ask them for a little contribution, so below is bit on the journey from their perspective.

Courtesy of Mom & Dad:

From the moment that Michele decided to quit her job and travel extensively with a backpack in South America, she encouraged us to join her for some part of it. As it worked out for us, the best timing was when she would be in Peru and Ecuador and it just so happened, we would also be there for her birthday. So, we booked our tickets and headed off for our adventure. An adventure it was! Although we took suitcases, not backpacks, our plan from the beginning was to experience this in much the same way that Michele was. So, we stayed in hostels or guesthouses and except for our flight from Peru to Ecuador, mostly took buses. A few nights, we shared a room with Colin and Michele and many nights, we shared with Michele. Most places had no heat (and it was cold!), but they all had warm blankets. We did always have our own bathroom and for the most part, hot water was available when we took showers. Eating too, was at times an adventure, but we were game for most of it, drawing the line at Cuy (guinea pig), an Andean specialty.

In Peru, we visited Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. We spent longer in Ecuador and visited Quito, Baños, the jungle near Canelos, the Quilatoa crater lake, and lastly, Papallacta, a hot springs resort in the hills east of Quito. Many of the places were at altitudes of 9000+. Our favorites were the visit to the Ollantaytambo town and archaeological site where we had a terrific local guide, and our drive to the Quilatoa crater lake which had gorgeous scenery along the way. Our favorite lodging was probably in Baños where we stayed at a rather stunning guest house built and run by an Australian/Kiwi expat couple. The most adventurous has to be the trip to the jungle. We were going to take 2 different buses to get there, but our taxi driver in Baños offered us a deal we couldn’t refuse for our first hop, so it was only one bus. Once we were there, we were picked up by our jungle lodge owner (Swiss expat) in his pick-up truck for a short ride to a clearing near the river (his parking lot). Then he gave us knee-high rubber boots and we tromped another 20 minutes into the jungle to reach the small lodge (only 2 cabanas and a main building for eating). Although we heard much about crime ahead of time and from locals, our scariest moments were probably in Ecuadorean cabs. Stop signs are suggestions and passing on mountainous highways, commonplace. Sort of an “E” ticket ride Ecuadorian style.

Most of all, this trip was about spending time with Michele. She is now 28 years old and has been on her own for several years. She is a capable, independent young woman. In fact, because of her Spanish language skills and her travel experience, she was our “leader”, a significant switch in the family dynamic from our travels as a family when she was younger. Safe travels Michele, we look forward to your return to SF.



Cuzco & Ollantaytambo

Over the course of two weeks, a couple definitions of “we” enjoyed Cuzco as our home base for our various adventures. Colin and I walked around and up to do some acclimating prior to our trek. We chilled for a few days recovering from the trek at the lovely Hostel Kurumi. We shamelessly savored a couple of meals at Jack’s, an allure for gringos of the American sort looking for tastes of home. On our first visit, I was rather exalted to find homemade hummus, while Colin channeled his inner 12-year-old indulging in french toast and a milkshake…for dinner.

After our return from Chinchero, we greeted our parents at Kurumi. Colin unfortunately was knocked out for a couple of days with a stomach bug, so he laid low while I introduced the ‘rents to both my empanada habit and my wandering style (“hey, that street looks nice, let’s go there”). After missing out on the cooking class I had tried for in Arequipa, we signed up for an evening one in Cuzco. Peruvian Cooking Classes took us on our a tour of San Pedro market and explained the way local people shop. Then we returned to the kitchen to prepare crema de choclo (corn soup), lomo saltado (traditional meat stir fry), arroz con leche (rice pudding), and chicha morada (beverage made from purple corn). The class was intimate and well done. It was all very hands on unlike how some cooking classes end up. Once we finished cooking, we enjoyed the meal together upstairs. While the dishes didn’t knock our sneakers off (as my mom likes to say), they were enjoyable and we had a fun time.

The main family adventure was going to the Sacred Valley for a few days. We rented a car and drove through Pisac and on to Ollantaytambo. In Pisac, we explored the market in town, had a quick lunch, then went off to see the Inca ruins. I, of course, wanted to walk and decided to meet the fam at the ruins. I didn’t quite realize what I got myself into and walked primarily uphill (a seemingly recurring theme), to reach the ruins that are more expansive than I’d imagined. I made guesses at a few forks on which direction to head and eventually found the parking lot, our rental car, and the fam shortly thereafter.

Ollantaytambo was well worth the visit. The town itself is over 700 years old, and not much has changed during that time. The streets are very narrow and not so prepared for cars, though we managed just fine. We visited the ruins where we opted to hire a local guide. Often hit or miss, our guide proved to be very knowledgeable and friendly. The whole experience felt much more personal as his pride and passion for his hometown was made evident by his energy and eagerness to teach us. At the end, he even gifted each of us a necklace with the Inca cross. That night we went for a somewhat celebratory dinner as it happened to be my birthday. We found what looked like a lively restaurant though we ended up being the only patrons. We had a few extra pisco sours and the waiter even brought me my own party-sized one in honor of the occasion. I don’t think I’ll ever have another birthday like it and was very lucky to have the whole family present in the Sacred Valley. The celebration was pretty wild as I only made it to bed by 9:30.

The next morning, mom and dad left bright and early for their day trip to Machu Picchu, while Colin and I drove the car back to Cuzco. Quite appropriately, Colin and I went for a final meal at Jack’s before Colin was on his way to the airport to head home. The parents and I followed suit the next morning but instead heading to Quito. More on our Ecuadorian adventures to come!