If you know Don and I, you know we are not big fans of rain. We love Portland, Oregon, and really enjoyed living there, but we aren´t moving back and the primary reason is all the rain. Unfortunately, despite our attempt at planning out our trip based on seasons and weather patterns, we have been plagued by endless rain for months now. It feels like ever since we left Argentina, with a few short exceptions in Bolivia and Peru, we have had almost constant rain. And it has been very discouraging. Rain especially disrupts our backpacking plans, and in general makes every day of travel a little more challenging and each view a little less satisfying. We keep hoping that as we move north this will change, but Ecuador has been relentless. That isn´t to say we haven´t enjoyed our time here, or made some wonderful memories, but we can´t ignore the toll that the rain is taking on our spirits. After exploring the Ecuadorian towns of Vilcabamba, Loja, Cuenca, and Puerto Lopez, we have bunkered down in Baños and made ourselves right at home. Baños has won our hearts, and brought us lots of joy and adventure even in the midst of the daily rainstorms. We are currently in the process of convincing ourselves to move on – after all, the clock is ticking and we still have the rest of Ecuador and all of Columbia to explore – but in the meantime we are watching a lot of futbol, cooking meals in our aparment´s kitchen, and hanging out with our new friends Brad and Corrine who also come from the states.
Getting from Peru to Ecuador, like all long bouts of transporation, held its own set of challenges. From Huanchaco we caught our first bus to Piura, Peru at the last minute, and then after about 6 hours of travel, we nearly missed our connecting bus into Ecuador. After a speedy taxi ride and some creative money exchange, we made it onto an uncomfortable overnight bus that took us all the way to Loja, Ecuador. From Loja we traveled south another hour to the expat-filled town of Vilcabamba. The geographical change from Peru to Ecuador was impressive. Most of this country is rainforest, and everything, from the mountains to the coast is covered in a thick layer of foliage. Vilcabamba is a very small town set in a green valley with rolling green hills all around. It is known for having long-living residents (some people attribute it to the drinking water) and also drawing a large number of expats from all over the western world. The central plaza is surrounded by juice bars, coffee shops, and pricey restaurants…all catered toward the large population of displaced westerners. We spent a few days in town hiking and eating, but then moved north in search of a bit more opportunity.
Loja, Ecuador is not on many travelers´ agendas, but the nearby National Park Podocarpus caught our attention, and when we were able to secure accommodations with our very first couchsurfing host, we decided to devote a couple nights to the place. We were lucky enough to stay with a wonderful girl named Veronica who offered more than just her room. She showed us around town, ate schwarma with us, and was super helpful with our Spanish (she studied in the states and was fluent in English). We did dedicate a day to hiking in Podocarpus, but much to our dismay, the storm at the top of the mountain nearly broke us. High winds, deep, slippery mud, freezing rain, and very limited visibility made for a much more challenging day than we had in mind. The 8km road walk at the end of the hike helped us defrost and actually made the day worth it in the end, but we had come for the mountains, and we were sad about the disappointing introduction.
We left Loja for the larger city of Cuenca, 5 hours north. Cuenca was a real delight and ranked right up there as one of our favorite cities of our trip. We compared it to Arequipa or Cusco in Peru, and enjoyed a few days of exploration from our room at a cute hostel in the old town. After exploring our fair share of museums and eateries, we took a bus out of town and once again tried our luck in the mountains. National Park Cajas is only 30km outside of Cuenca, but feels worlds away. We left the relatively warm and dry city and entered the clouds within minutes. Above all else, Cajas was cold, frigid cold, and once again, it rained the entire time we were there. We had brought our gear with us and followed through on our plan to stay in the refugio at the park entrance, but we only got in one short hike and a lot of time reading in front of a fire that we didn’t dare let die. We still enjoyed our little retreat, but when we took the bus back to Cuenca the next morning, we made the desperate decision to head north that day, again hoping we’d eventually outrun all the rain.
Our afternoon of travel brought us to the non-touristy city of Riobamba. We had our sights set on a small cheese-and-chocolate-producing town named Salinas up in the mountains, but we opted to spend the night in Riobamba and travel further the following day. Although Riobamba is mostly just another town, it did have a nice stretch of restaurants and bars and we enjoyed a cheap and relaxing evening which left us refreshed the following day. The journey to Salinas takes you through the somewhat unremarkable town of Guaranda and, more notably, along a highway just south of the beautiful Volcano Chimborazo. Pedictably enough, the entire journey was made during a storm and we couldn’t see more than a few feet outside of the bus, but we knew the mountain was there, and we held out hope for the days to come. Because of the earth’s equatorial bulge, Volcano Chimborazo is in fact the “highest” point on earth, which makes it stand out from all the other mountains we’ve passed on our trip. We arrived in the tiny village of Salinas in a pouring rain, so we spent the whole first afternoon in front of another fireplace in another refugio. Fortunately, the following morning the weather was much-improved and we were able to take a wonderfully informative and enjoyable tour of the town’s unique co-operatives. Salinas was just another small, poor village when an italian man moved there in the 1970’s. With remarkable vision and influence, that individual transformed the future of the town and all its inhabitants. He taught the people how to make mature cheese and helped them organize their resources in order to form the first cheese-making co-operative. The locals, many of whom had been working a slaves, finally had jobs and a source of income, and the project grew from there. More volunteers came and with them came instruction in the creation of chocolate, cured meats, yarn, textiles, and even soccer balls. The high quality of all the exports made Salinas famous throughout Ecuador and has provided a huge amount of security for thousands of residents in and around the town. Our guide brought us around to many of the cooperatives, where we got to sample the various products and experience the factories first-hand. It was a rewarding and fun day, but the town was very tiny, and didn’t merit a much longer stay. We decided that we would head back to Guaranda the next morning, where Don and I would part ways for a unique week of solo travel.
For months, Don and I had been talking about traveling separately, mostly so that that we could get in more Spanish practice. Without fail, when we are together we always slip back into English and we actually find it rare to really need Spanish when we are traveling together. Don was keen on spending another week on the coast, and I had been in contact with a HelpX host in Baños, Ecuador who ran a Spanish school and was willing to let me stay with her for a week and speak only Spanish. The morning that we parted ways was both exciting and hard. This was to be Don´s first real solo travel outside of the United States, and I couldn´t really be sure what to expect from my HelpX job. From Guaranda Don hopped a bus south to Guayaquil and then onto Montañita on the coast, and I took the short journey to Ambato and on to Baños. Baños impressed me the moment I arrived. I was conerned that I had too high of expectations, but it didn´t matter in the end, because any town set in the mountains, with waterfalls and hot springs all around, and over 20 coffee shops to choose from, was bound to make me happy. I spent the week living with a wonderful woman named Mayra and her 3 children. I worked every day helping her online presence – organizing and responding to hundreds of emails, and getting Facebook, AirBnB and various other profiles up-to-date – and generally helping out around the house. In exchange, Mayra was true to her word and we spoke in Spanish the entire week. The practice was incredibly helpful for me and I felt so grateful for my improvement by the end of the week. While I was busy babysitting, sitting for long hours in front of a computer, and trying to master another language, Don was exploring the coast of Ecuador, getting in a fair share of sun bathing, surfing, and camping. We missed each other, but when we reunited 7 days later, we both agreed that our plan had worked out perfectly. At the end of the week I left Baños early in the morning and headed for Puerto Lopez, where I planned to meet up with Don on the eve of my 29th birthday. From the moment we were back together, I was spoiled with a solid 24 hours of birthday love. Don picked out our accommodations (which included a pool!), made me breakfast, showed me around town, and treated me to a very special dinner overlooking the ocean which culminated in a tasty surprise creme brulee for dessert! We were both exhausted after a day of fun, and after a bit of discussion we decided that one more day at the ocean would be sufficient before returning to Baños. Unfortunately the gorgeous weather that Don ordered up for my birthday didn´t last, so our following day was overcast as we explored the beautiful Frailes beach and then hiked up to a natural pool where we covered ourselves in healing mud in the community of Agua Blanca. We struggled with the decision whether or not to take a boat out to Isla del Plata and see whales or not, but in the end decided that we just didn´t have the money, and whale-watching would have to wait for another trip. We left the next morning for yet another long day of bus travel all the way back to Baños. It was Don´s turn to explore the town and I had way too many activities planned for our time together.
The original intention was to spend a couple days in Baños, but being back in the mountains was too tempting for us, and we are now going on our 6th day in town. We need to move on, but we can´t leave before watching the first U.S. world cup game in our cozy apartment with our cool American roommates! This week has been wonderfully recharging and fun-filled. We have eaten all of the good food and drank all the good coffee in town, hiked all of the local trails to various lookouts, a treehouse with a famous swing, and even to Cafe del Cielo – a cafe with a perfect view of the town. We rented bikes and rode toward the Amazon, stopping at the famous Paillon del Diablo waterfall and taking a crickety old gondola across a deep canyon. And of course we made time to relax in the town´s hot springs in between trying to help Mayra in any little way that we can (we are still staying in the volunteer accommodations in her building). Mayra´s new volunteers are a couple from the states, Brad and Corrine, and we´ve really enjoyed having roommates and sharing stories and meals. This week once again revealed to us our strong bias toward the mountains. We really like this town and could see ourselves staying here longer if we didn´t have so much to explore and only 7 weeks left of travel. From Baños we will head north through more of Ecuador, and then finish up with about 6 weeks in Columbia. All we can hope is that traveling north will finally rid us of all this rain!