South America

Ecuador Day 1 and 2: Walking the Line

Day 1:

Here we go again, off to a different continent this time. Because nobody can say they’re a true world traveler until they’ve had to take malaria pills.

 

I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “Why Ecuador?” After a few years of traveling exclusively to Europe, this trip seemed like it came out of left field. Well, the answer is simple. I wanted to go to South America, and I wanted to get there for as little money as possible. My first choice was Argentina. But that was too expensive. So maybe next time, Buenos Aires. Off to Quito I go.

 

My trip started with a 5AM wakeup call and some last minute panic packing. I’m sure I forgot something. Stay tuned. I also drove myself down to Boston Logan, left my car at a friends’ house, and then Ubered to the airport from Revere. Really feelin’ that independence. Though I can say that I’m a bigger fan of getting shuttled down by my mom or grandparents and getting a glass of wine before a 9pm flight. Then again, it is nice not to have to fly a red eye.

 

I flew Copa Airlines, the Latin American Delta affiliate, which is pretty basic, nothing too fancy. Although the animation for their flight safety video had the quality and detail of an 80s CGI film. And then when it demonstrated the “permitted electronic devices,” it featured, I shit you not, a flip phone, box laptop, and a Gameboy. Not even a Gameboy color. It was one of the original ones the size of a brick.

 

The flight went by fairly quickly. I got sucked into “Crazy Rich Asians” and then “I, Tonya.” Usually I’m not one for in-flight movies but my malaria pills make me dizzy and I had too much of a headache to read. If my Dad is reading this, he’s definitely calling me a nerd and wondering how we’re related.

 

After a not-so-painful five hour flight, I touched down in Panama City for a layover. I didn’t really know what I was expecting for the Panama City Airport, but it was actually really nice, clean, and not super confusing. Which, really, is all you want in an airport.

 

I got a coffee and a bite to eat. For food I just randomly picked something from a pastry case and got what seemed to be a croissant with an omelette plopped inside it. At first I was quizzical, but it was actually really good. I think the croissant was like 80% butter. Which is probably why it was really good.

 

I sat around and waited for my next flight to take off and was entertained by a Yorkshire Terrier who was VERY cute. His collar featured a tie like he was a little business man: cue joke about the dog flying business class.

 

We boarded and the dog was in the front row of the first class section. I was thrilled.

 

The second flight was up-and-down without any drama. I disembarked and went through the shortest customs line I’ve ever seen (seriously, there were like three people in line ahead of me, all from my flight). And then proceeded to the most dramatic part of my day:

 

Standing at the baggage carousel and praying my luggage had not been lost.

 

All it takes is one lost luggage experience to convince you that you’ve lost your baggage every time you fly. It was especially prevalent today, as I’d bought a brand new suitcase. Two days ago. I got it on sale. At Marshall’s. It’s the perfect size. It’s a classy champagne color. It locks ITSELF so I don’t have to keep buying locks when I lose my locks. It’s perfect.

 

And I’m staring at the conveyer belt, praying to almighty Buddha that I was not going to be mocked from the heavens for spending unnecessary money on a new suitcase.

 

But—mind you, nearly at the end of the cycle—down she came in all her champagne glory. Thank god.

 

And now for the portion of my journey that was giving my parents hives—the 45 minute cab ride from the airport into Quito. That’s a long time in a cab with a stranger. I get it, I was a little nervous too. Honestly more for the emotional energy it takes to sit silently with another human in a vehicle for an extended period of time. Meanwhile my parents thought I was gonna get “Taken.” Obviously I’m publishing this, so you know I made it out alive. Or maybe that was after Liam Neeson saved me…

 

Nah. My cab driver was a very sweet man named Edison. He spoke no English, and I speak enough Spanish to ask for the bathroom or order orange juice. So we were a pair. But he was very smiley and helped me a lot with my bags. He also had a little app on his phone that translated Spanish to English so he could tell me things like “The drive from here to your hotel is 45 minutes, unless we hit traffic.” Five stars, Edison. And to think getting “taken” was ever a thought.

 

As we drove from the airport (which was very nice! So many fountains…) into the city, I got a great view of the Andes Mountains. Coming from the airport we were surrounded on all sides by slopes and peaks. Not to mention it had been storming all day so the setting sun and the thick puffy clouds were doing all kinds of cool things. This entry has zero photos except for these, and they’re not good, but they’re all you get.

 

The reason why the city is so far from the airport isn’t because of mileage—it’s because of elevation. The city is literally on a mountain. We had to jackknife up cliffs to get there. It was cool but also kind of scary. Ecuadorian drivers are aggressive. And I could see that very clearly even only from 45 minutes on the road.

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Soon I was at the Hostal De La Mancha in Downtown Quito, and after a quick goodbye with my buddy Edison, I was checked in. Just in time too. We had our onboarding Contiki meeting in ten minutes. So I dumped my bags and started grouping with some fellow travelers.

 

Now, this is my third Contiki tour, and the other two I’d been on had been nearly full to the brim—between 45-50 people. What I didn’t realize is that the Latin America tours are capped at 25, and that ours isn’t even full. We have nineteen people! It’s like a lil baby crew. What I’m hoping though is that we’ll all get to know each other pretty easily.

 

I haven’t gotten to know too many people yet, but it seems like it’s mostly Americans with a sprinkling of Australians and Canadians. Super weird for Contiki, which is usually 90% Aussies. Stay tuned for their details. As of right now we’re all weird strangers.

 

For tonight we’re all in single rooms, which is nice. I’ve got one night to myself to adjust and acclimatize. My malaria pills and my elevation pills are still messing around with each other, and I’m trying to hydrate with the hotel water before I get stuck in the jungle in coming days and have to resort to only bottled water. That’ll be when the real adventure starts.

 

***

 

Day 2:

 

So about that whole “single room” thing. I got woken up at 1am by a knock on the door. I ignored it at first, thinking maybe the kids in the room across from me were just being obnoxious. But there was another knock. So I got out of bed. Turns out poor Jordin’s flight had gotten in super late and she’d just arrived to the hotel. Poor thing. But she was able to settle in, and we were able to get some sleep.

 

We started off day 2 with an early breakfast call at the hotel. It was nothing too flashy, just toast, yogurt, some fruit, pastries. You get it. But the star of the breakfast show was the hotel dog. Yep, there was a dog that frequented the lobby. He was a giant chow-chow who was 80% fur. And he was not a nice friendly happy dog, he was a grumpy old man dog who was wondering why all these people were in his house. But we loved him anyway.

 

The next part of our day was pre-trip meeting: the sequel. We got more safety info, more info about different activities, you get the gist. I’m not here to talk about meetings.

 

By 10am we were on the bus and on our way to the city tour of Quito. We were led by the fabulous Veronica, who was a sassy little Ecuadorian lady who was very excited to tell us about history and politics and anything else she felt like taking about. She spent five minutes talking about how former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa got elected because he was cute. I mean she mentioned his policies and how he built the nice highway system and saved the country from economic collapse. But she also passed around her phone so we could see how cute his face was.

 

Our first stop of the day was at the Intiñan Museum, which was an open air museum in two parts. One part exhibition of the Ecuadorian rainforest and indigenous peoples, one part Equator kitsch and shenanigans.

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We started off with the more educational stuff, which was very interesting. We learned about some fun Amazonian wildlife, including anacondas, tarantulas (if I see one in the wild here I WILL cry) and these fun little fish that swim up your urethra if you pee in a river. So yeah. Super fun. Can’t wait to go to the jungle tomorrow.

 

On to the indigenous peoples exhibit. The first thing we learned was the process by which people created shrunken heads. Well, first we learned that shrunken heads were not originally trophies or tokens of war, but were actually created for the purpose of preserving their dead. It was almost like their type of mummification. But then once the Europeans arrived and they got a kick out of these heads, they started buying and trading them through the black market. Then it became less about preserving the remains of the naturally deceased, and more about…head procuring. You get the picture.

 

So anyway, the way they made them is by removing the head, slicing the skin so that the skull can be removed from the back, stitching it back up, and then boiling it so it shrinks. Now you know. Don’t try it at home, kids.

Next we came to the highlight: the Equator. Now, you may just think it’s a line on the map. But considering it’s a spot of gravitational magnetism, it’s actually got some weird properties. So much so that even the ancient Incas were able to figure out that it had special significance. They even used it as a sacred burial ground and performed rituals there. Fast forward 2500 years and we’re playing around with dumb parlor tricks. Like standing in two hemispheres at once.

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Or trying to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed. It’s harder than it looks. You’re essentially being pulled in two gravitational directions at once.

And then finally, trying to balance an egg on a nail. If you do it successfully, you get a little certificate that dubs you an “egg master.” I mean, I like any kind of praise or acclaim, so you’re damn right I wanted that title. And boom. I did it. All those days stacking golf balls at Team Mickey finally paid off.

Lastly we came to a little hut where they told us about guinea pigs, or as the native Incas called them cuy, because of the noise they made when they squeaked. Guinea pigs are one of the few domesticated animals native to Ecuador, along with alpacas (which we saw at the entrance to the museum!) and llamas. They played a couple roles, including earthquake alarms, and, well, dinner. We also got to see a little collective of them in a little pen. They were super puffy. I’m really hoping these ones won’t be snacks.

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After we left the guinea pigs we carried on to lunch. Now, this was an experience, and it was mostly Veronica’s fault. Like, I loved her more than life, but she messed with us at lunch. We went to a fried chicken place and she helped us all order, that was fine. But then came weird Ecuadorian rules. So apparently you have to eat with a plastic glove on your left hand so you don’t get chicken grease on it. But also you have to pick it up and eat it, you can’t use your fork. Also there’s this sauce that comes on the table that she insisted you put on everything.

 

So here we are, struggling to eat a giant piece of fried chicken with only our gloved left hands, making a mess of everything, there’s “mandatory sauce” everywhere and we look over and see that Veronica is not wearing a glove and eating with a fork. We felt quite betrayed.

 

After lunch we went to the equator monument, which is where the French explorers supposedly discovered the site of the equator. Turns out they were wrong, which is why the equator museum is up the street. Colonial explorers didn’t have GPS.

Following our equator adventure, we made our way to downtown. Quito isn’t exactly a gorgeous city. It’s not dirty, but it’s a little worn down and rusty. Granted I’m used to European travel. Once you’ve seen Paris or Prague it’s all downhill from there architecture-wise. But yeah. You don’t go to Ecuador for architectural marvels. I will say however that Quito was at least clean. And doesn’t have an unreasonable problem involving trash overflowing from bins. (Rome, Paris, Berlin–I’m looking at you!)

We saw three baroque churches built by the Spanish colonists. Veronica told us how the churches were built to block the sun, because the Inca and Kichwa people believed that God was the sun, so they wanted to cover it to the best of their abilities. The churches also were covered top to bottom in gold, which was mined in the Spanish territories. We also saw a cool painting depicting a saint’s depiction of Hell after she’d seen it in a dream. It featured all kinds of punishments for different people: people being boiled alive, people hanging from the ceiling. The adulterer was getting his junk burned off by a fire demon while simultaneously being force-fed acid. Good times. Of course we’d all signed up for the beer tasting later that evening, so we were a little focused on the drunkard who was not only being force-fed a giant vat of alcohol, but also being impaled on a bed of spikes. (Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos in that church, so you’ll just have to use your imagination).

After the churches, we went to a building across the street from the main square for a chocolate tasting. Switzerland and Belgium are most well known for their chocolate, but fun fact, a lot of the big European chocolate companies buy their cacao from Ecuador. So we were lucky enough to try chocolate made right in Ecuador. Well. First after trying some chocolate by-products. First we tried syrup made from the cacao plant. That actually tasted more like balsamic vinegar than chocolate. And then we tried raw cacao, which they call “nibs.” Following that, we got to try actual bits of chocolate, first 100%, then 80%, and 70%, which had won some award for having a best . Personally I like milk chocolate over dark chocolate, so this tasting was getting better as it went.

 

Then we got into fun flavors. Chocolate with coffee, chocolate with chili peppers, chocolate with nibs cut up in it. All of them were really good. Although we did try one with lemongrass tea, and that one tasted like bug spray.

 

The building where the chocolate tasting was in was pretty cute so I took some pictures…

 

After we all filed into the gift shop to purchase chocolate bars, we were back on the bus to head to the local handicraft market to do a little souvenir shopping. This market was massive. Ten aisles of little shops all narrowly packed together selling jewelry and art and textiles and leather goods. All of the people running the shops were all very excited to see anyone approaching and would start saying what they had—in Spanish. So you just kind had to say “no, gracias” with a smile and keep walking.

I found a couple of sweaters made with a wool/alpaca fur blend, a painting of a hummingbird with a rose (because we had seen hummingbirds that day, and apparently Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporter of roses), and a pair of earrings. All lovely things, And it was all cheap, which is why I kept buying stuff…

 

After the handicraft market, we headed in for dinner, which was at the hotel. It featured soup, chicken, some veggies, and ice cream on a churro(?) for dessert. It was all pretty good. We also saw the return of “mandatory sauce,” which was set prominently in the middle of the table. We also were given coconut milk as an after dinner drink, with actual bits of coconut still in it, which we called “nibs,” in reference to the chocolate from earlier.

 

Following dinner, despite the fact that we were dragging like slugs, we were off to beer tasting. Now, we start the beer tour with Myra, our tour director, passing us each a beer on the bus, which is definitely against Contiki rules, but eh, anything goes in Ecuador. We went to the first bar, Sinners, which was pretty good. Their logo was the devil but with hops for a beard. That was pretty cool.

The next place wasn’t a brewery, but instead a shot bar. We started off with three shots, one passionfruit, one chocolate, and one a native citrus fruit that I forget the name. I actually liked that one the best. Then we proceeded to the other side of the bar for a rousing game of shot roulette. See, shot roulette is bad enough when you know what you’re getting for shots, but we had absolutely no idea. Well, the first one I got was clear liquid with a lemon in it and salt around the rim. I shoot it and it tastes like evil rubbing alcohol. Apparently my defense mechanism against this satanic liquid was to spill it out the sides of my mouth, which was wholly embarrassing considering I’ve just met everyone in the room. Also it tasted like actual death, and that taste continued to linger on my tongue. Turns out it was called “fire water” and is, ya know, that liquor in this bar that’s meant to knock you down flat. Boy was I feeling knocked flat.

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We proceeded to the last bar and we stumbled in like a heard of cattle. The bartenders were laughing at us as they offered us their beer samples, which were, frankly, too generous. And then on top of that the bartender bet the group that if anyone could drink a liter of beer faster than him, then it would be free. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it, but Jordin and Mike did. Mike had no chance, but Jordin gave him a run for his money.

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We walked like an even more obnoxious herd of cattle back to the bus, so much so that our bus driver said “oh my god.” Luckily our hotel was just a minute up the street. From there it was straight to bed. We certainly weren’t fit for anything else.

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