It was night time when the plane touched down in Quito. My boyfriend and I made it through the airport and out to hail a taxi. As we entered the Historic District, the world's first city to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage listing, we could hear music and people celebrating in the colonial plazas. The city was lit by the warm glow of street lamps and Christmas lights. It was days before their biggest holiday--the festival of the founding of Quito--and the party had already begun. We were dropped off at the curb to walk up a cobble stone side street to the entrance to our hotel. The large, wooden doors opened to a Spanish tiled entry way. We followed a spiraling staircase to the second floor where our room looked out into an open courtyard in the center of the building---the common colonial architectural style found here.
The morning light seeped into the courtyard, illuminating the hanging plants that surrounded the bannisters. Breakfast was traditional--fried eggs with sausage, an empanada, and fresh tropical juice. We ate quickly and headed to the bus station just outside of the historic district. Our destination was a small village within the Cotopaxi Loop just south of Quito. The bus station was chaotic, and would have been nearly impossible to naviage without a solid grasp of the Spanish language. We managed to get on a bus to the correct destination, making the rookie mistake of paying twice--once for the bus that we didn't get on and again for the bus that we ended up taking--a mistake that cost us a whopping six extra dollars.
The bus cruised out of the city and along green countryside littered with garbage and emaciated stray dogs. The driver would slow down as he approached a bus stop so that the driver's assistant could hang out the door shouting out the name of our destination and collecting passengers along the way, giving them just enough time to get on the bus before hitting the gas. We continued south until the bus came to the town of Riobamba, where we reluctantly disembarked with no sign of another bus or station for that matter. The dirt streets were lined with small shops selling non-perishable groceries and other supplies. After about a ten minute walk, we found the bus station and more importantly the correct bus. We found seats and watched the bus fill with indigenous Andean women of all ages. They wore the traditional black top hats with brightly colored shawls and skirts that hung to their knees. My boyfriend and I stuck out like sore thumbs in our t-shirts and shorts. We observed one another, smiling when we caught someone staring or when we were caught doing the same.
The bus departed Riobamba and shortly thereafter headed up into the winding hillsides away from the clutter of people and litter. The roads were narrow, and with every sharp corner the bus driver honked the horn to notify any oncoming traffic that we approached. We made several stops along the way with the same urgency that was exhibited on our earlier ride. The only time I actually saw the driver come to a complete stop to let a passenger off was for an elderly woman carrying a propane tank. As school ended for the day, kids from the age of five and older waited on the side of the road in their uniforms for their ride home. They watched us with an intensely unfiltered curiosity but never approached us. They hid their faces when we smiled.
After several hours of adventure-filled bus rides, we arrived at La Posada Oveja Negra, "The Black Sheep Inn," an eco lodge in the heart of the Cotopaxi Loop and just a short drive from Laguna Quilotoa, "Crater Lake." We spent three days enjoying the beauty of the Irish-green country side, with lamas grazing in the front yard, delicious food, and fantastic hiking. We made the wise decision to hike with a local as our guide which gave us the peace of mind to enjoy our hike and the added information of plant identification and insight into his life there. On our return to Quito, we shared a private driver---the only alternative that day was a 3am milk truck to get to the bus station, no thank you---with another couple who took us to Cotopaxi National Park to hike for a few hours. We made it to 4,800 meters (14,400 ft) before the clouds began to darken and we had to turn around. That evening, we met my sister for the holiday celebrations in the Mariscal district notorious for its vibrant nightlife. People packed the streets and the party was still going strong when the sun's glow crept into the sky.
For those who enjoy history, architecture, and culture, the Historic District is a priceless treasure. Its buildings are from the 17th and 18th Centuries, with enormous churches, palaces, museums, shops, and corridors to explore. A short taxi ride brings travelers to the base of the Teleferico tram car, which rides up the side of Pinchincha volcano for a spectacular view of the city and the surrounding volcanic peaks. Personally, one of the most special parts of my time in Quito was the Temple of Man, a museum created specifically to house Oswaldo Guayasamin's artwork. For anyone even remotely interested in artwork, this is a real treat and it provides insight into a dark history of political turmoil that Guayasamin depicts in his works and is so interconnected in the South American story.
A day trip to Otavalo brought us to the market world-famous for its quantity and quality of indigenous arts and crafts. The plaza is filled with rows upon rows of everything from alpaca wool rugs and clothes to colorful hammocks to jewelry made of Tagua nuts to stone sculptures. It is truly overwhelming. After a full day of exploring the market, and with our loot in hand we returned to Quito for the night before our departure to Tena the following morning.
Tena lies east of Quito and serves as an entry point into the Amazon. We spent the next few days exploring the Amazon from a jungle lodge with cozy thatched roof huts along the river, toucans in the trees, and a parrot which vehemently protected the owner of the property (and loved to eat your breakfast bread if you felt like sharing). We explored the jungle with a local Quechua guide and his German Shepherd, Lupi, who opened our eyes to see each individual plant for its medicinal properties and practical uses. He made hats out of palm fronds, we played with flowers, tried our best to climb trees using traditional rope vines, ate ants, healed our scratches with the sap from the trees, tasted Chicha (not the traditional kind that is fermented using human saliva), and swam in the river.
On our way out of the jungle, we detoured to the town of Banos, which is aptly named for the hot baths accessible throughout the city. It sits beneath Tunguraghua Volcano (which was smoking while we were there) and boasts a variety of adventure opportunities from hiking to waterfall tours to ATV rides. Our two days in the city went very quickly and were a combination of full day adventures, evenings relaxing in the hot baths, and trying new foods. We returned to Quito to catch a flight to the coast to see the town which captured my sister's heart during her time in Ecuador. We flew from Quito to Manta, and piled into a taxi for a three hour drive along the coast to Montanita. This little town is the size of about two city blocks and filled with surfers from around the world. It is the host of an international surfing competition every February, and this quirky little town is a hot spot for young travelers despite the fact--or perhaps because of the fact that it feels like it is in the middle of nowhere (the closest gas station is a 45 minute drive away). We spent our days attempting to surf and then sleeping on the beach before heading back into the water for more play time in the waves. We wandered through the shops and restaurants and enjoyed the lively night life. We met the locals and shared many laughs together. This little town holds a magic that comes with the freedom of the beach and the light-hearted attitudes of the people that come here. It was a perfect finale for our family to relax and enjoy our time together.
My time in Ecuador only scratched the surface of all of the adventures available in the country. The Galapagos itself is a journey all on its own and yet a traveler can spend their entire vacation exploring inland Ecuador. Its people are as diverse as the country side and I await the day where I can return to discover more of its beauty.