Monday, January 18, 2010

Ecuador Top Ten

So I wasn't great at keeping up a travel log. I'm going to cheat and reconstruct the vacation now, with a top ten list of moments in Ecuador. "Top" doesn't necessarily mean best; in this context, it means notable. In chronological order:

1.) The second day of the trip we went with a group from our hostel to Cotopaxi, a 16,000 ft volcano 50 m outside Quito. Robby and I sat in the back of an SUV as we drove to a parking lot from which we hiked to the base camp. The road was incredibly windy, taking switchbacks to tackle the incline. As we were hugging a blind curve, a jeep came racing down the mountain and swerved to miss us as it came around the curve. The jeep then fishtailed, and flipped, as Robby and I witnessed with our jaws dropped. Our vehicle stopped to help, and thankfully no one was hurt. The driving in Ecuador is INSANE!

2.) Once we reached the base camp of Cotopaxi (after the longest one-mile hike I have ever done - the altitude sickness was very apparent all the way up there), Robby and I opted to hike further to the glacier. On our way up we spotted an Andean wolf (which is actually a kind of fox) and I let Robby continue with the guide to the glacier since I was having trouble breathing. I sat and watched the wolf, its red fur in stark contrast with the surrounding snow and bare terrain. I noticed a young Ecuadorian man watching it as well and we starting chatting; this was a good opportunity to practice my Spanish. He is a veterinary student in Quito and we talked about traveling in Ecuador. He asked if I travel much and I said no, to which he asked why. It's amazing how an elementary understanding of a language can bring about the simplest, yet also most complex questions. I realized I didn't have a satisfying answer for him.

3.) The driving in Ecuador was what scared me the most; I didn't really feel in danger unless I was in a taxi or a bus. As we were in a bus from Quito to Tena (probably a 6,000 ft drop in altitude), winding down the mountains, I noticed none of the Ecuadorians were nervous like me and I asked Robby if they're simply less fearful than I. He replied, "they don't have the luxury of your bratty fears." Point taken.

4.) New Year's Eve was my most memorable yet. Robby and I arrived in Tena, a town known as the gateway to the Amazon, and renowned for its white water rafting. We went to Tena with the intention of taking a rafting trip but when we arrived in the afternoon of NYE all the rafting places were closed. Had we planned or simply thought better we would have realized that New Year's Day is not a realistic date for a guided white water rafting adventure. Tena was a rundown town and Robby and I were sorely disappointed and both bordering on grumpy. But we resolved to enjoy the holiday and do everything we could to see some of the jungle the following day. Our hotel set us up with a jungle tour/tubing trip (not exactly what we had in mind but sufficient considering the circumstances) and we went into town looking for drink and food to start the evening.

In Ecuador, the New Year's tradition is to burn large effigies when the clock strikes midnight. They are made and sold in the weeks leading up to the holiday and are of notable figures; we saw representations of Correa, Chavez, Michael Jackson, and "Oil Men." The effigies were displayed throughout Tena in anticipation of midnight and when the sun went down, fireworks started. By fireworks starting, I mean street vendors sold fireworks to children who then indiscriminately set them off in the town square, where everyone was gathered and a band was playing. Robby and I spent the evening hopping between a nearby bar and the town square, dancing to the band and taking tequila shots with Canadians who were much drunker than we. At midnight, the bonfire of effigies began and everyone hugged and kissed. One Ecuadorian man proudly and repeatedly said to us in English, "Happy New Year!" and we hugged everyone as well, with some Ecuadorian men taking the opportunity to get a kiss in with me. The mood was exhilarating, the band was terrific, and we couldn't stop dancing. I'm thinking of taking salsa lessons now that I'm back in Austin.

5.) From Tena we went to Vilcabamba, a small village in a valley in southern Ecuador. I had heard of Vilcabamba as "the valley of longevity," with many centenarian residents. When Robby and I arrived in the morning we were hungry for breakfast and went to a local restaurant recommended in one of our guidebooks. As we sat down, a circle of ex-pat hippie musicians had formed in the courtyard, who broke out into a chanting song of "hare krishna." We had heard Vilcabamba attracted a New Age crowd but I don't think we realized what a presence this crowd actually had in Vilcabamba. The next day we took a taxi from our hosteria into town with a middle-aged man from Hawaii who was looking to buy property in the area. He told us that Vilcabamba is a vortex, along with a town in Australia and a place in Arizona. Robby and I had no idea what he was talking about. "You know, chakra," he explained. Robby and I nodded.

6.) Steve. We met him in Vilcabamba. He is a lacrosse ref from the DC area so he immediately liked Robby. And "Steve" is Robby's default name so I think Robby immediately liked him. Steve's in his mid-forties and was in Ecuador with his girlfriend, whose sister had moved to Vilcabamba with her boyfriend. The sister thinks America is coming to an end, and perhaps the world will end in 2012, so she moved to Ecuador (makes perfect sense, right?). The sister's boyfriend was the nicest guy I've ever met and he followed her to Vilcabamba. Unfortunately, Steve and his girlfriend had broken up earlier in the trip because of a fight over a rental car and were stuck together for the rest of the trip. Robby and I ended up hanging out with Steve and Alan (the sister's boyfriend) and took an all-day horseback trip into the mountains with them. Which brings me to #7...

7.) Our 8-hour trip into the mountains surrounding Vilcabamba. I hadn't been on a horse in over 15 years and I think Robby had been on one once in his life so we were a bit underprepared. Alan and Steve joined us and by 9:30 AM we were literally galloping out of town into the mountains. I remember it being a big deal when I got a horse up to a canter when I was taking lessons as a little girl so I wasn't ready for the full gallop but what a rush it was! The trek up the mountain was scary, being on a horse that is climbing to 2300 m, seeming to teeter on its small hooves. The horses would slip and I was sure I would be bucked all the way back into the valley, but we all made it safely to the top. We let the horses graze while we hiked to a nearby waterfall for a lunch of fresh cheese and guacamole. The ride down the mountain was just as scary as the ride up and our butts were getting pretty sore. As we approached town, the horses went into a full gallop through the village and the town square. The feeling of galloping into a town with a cowboy hat on and seeing people peering out windows or stepping into doorways to watch you pass is incomparable; one of the greatest feeling of all time. It was a moment that requires a soundtrack.

8.) From Vilcabamba we went to Cuenca, a city in central Ecuador known for its Catholic tradition and history. It is scattered with huge stunning churches and squares and uniformed schoolchildren. Outside Cuenca is the national park, Cajas. We took a day trip to the park which was not the strenuous hike we were going for, though it gave us an opportunity to see the unique terrain. We hiked past wild llamas and alpacas, around glacier lakes, and through its sparse tundra vegetation. The highlight of the trip was the walk through the paper tree forest. The forest seemed to appear out of nowhere on the tundra. Inside the forest, the tree branches become entangled in each other in such a way that only beams of sunlight were allowed through the branches. The sight is hard to describe, but Robby and I agreed it looked like something out of the Princess Bride. After a 20 minute walk through the forest, just as suddenly as we came upon the paper trees, we emerged back into the barren landscape.

9.) The last place we visited on our trip was Canoa, a fishing/surfing town on the north coast of Ecuador. To get to Canoa we had to take three buses, a ferry, and a taxi, and the journey took 12 hours. But boy was it worth it. We spent 4 nights there, reading on the beach, playing cards and backgammon. My favorite part about Canoa was the lunches of ceviche and pina coladas with our toes in the sand.

10.) On the last day of our trip, after an 8-hour bus ride from Canoa to Quito, Robby was standing on the corner trying to hail a cab around 5:00 PM when a man tried to grab my purse! My bag was slung across my body so he only managed to spin me around but I was shaken up and angry I didn't get a punch in. I was shocked at the audacity of the attempt, in plain view and in daylight. I was glad to fly out of Quito the next day.

And now this 1L is back in Austin! Classes started today and I got into the Capital Punishment course I had my heart set on. I think this semester will be tougher than last but I'm sure I'll still enjoy it just as much. It's great to be back in Texas, back with my friends, and back in BBQ country.