Ecuador and the end of the South American leg

March 28 – April 6 2015

Ten short days in Ecuador, 24 hours in Bogota, and just like that, seven solid months of travel in South America came to a close.

I took a bus ride of nearly 20 hours from Trujillo in Peru to Guayaquil in Ecuador, a trip that was mainly unremarkable despite involving crossing an international border. I’ve crossed so many borders now. My passport is starting to fill up.

I visited Guayaquil, Couchsurfing with an awesome Finnish girl who makes macrame bracelets and had moved there to be with her Ecuadoran boyfriend. I was there 48 hours or so, most of my time spent with Viia, her boyfriend, and one of his friends, driving around Guayaquil, eating a typical Ecuadoran dish called Seco de Pollo, talking with Viia about travel and about South American culture, and, strangely, watching the season finale of the Walking Dead.

I took a bus up the coast from Guayaquil to a little beach town Viia recommended, where I watched ten or fifteen other backpackers got off the bus at the big surf town Montanita, kept staring out the window as we passed rows of identical kiosks selling the same cheap souvenirs you can find all over Ecuador, waited as the bus rolled further on to Olon, where I got off and took another bus 30 minutes further up the coast, past towns and into a country of tiny villages and quiet seaside bed-and-breakfasts, to Viejamar, an enchanted garden of hibiscus flowers and palm trees that happened to also contain a hostel – a few bamboo cabins, hammocks, and couches scattered among the palms and flowers and under the shade of the second-floor cabin where Rodrigo, the Chilean owner, spent his days surfing and occasionally administrating the hostel. The pool was on the other side of the kitchen and the gate was on the other side of the pool, under the balcony where you could watch the sunset and the locals surfing after work and feel the sea breeze, and on the other side of the gate it was sand and a twenty-second stroll (or a ten-second dash at mid-day when the sand was hot) to the little palm hut with hammocks and hooks to hang up my towel and then another two second dash down the wet sand and into the formidable waves of the Pacific Ocean. I stayed at Viejamar for five days.

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There’s an island about an hour from shore called Isla de la Plata, reached from the town of Puerto Lopez (close to Viejamar, between 20 and 30 minutes driving, depending on how fast the fishermen I hitched rides with wanted to drive). This island is like a small Galapagos, they say, because some of the same species live there. A column of massive, sharp-winged Frigate birds dominates the sky above the little mass of land, the birds circling slowly and silently in mesmerizing circles, not like vultures and not at all like frantic, haphazard seagulls. On top of the island we walked with a guide along a sandy path where blue-footed boobies nest. How have these animals survived, as curious as they are? Perhaps there’s a reason they only live here, and on the Galapagos, isolated from humans and other predators. They would come out of their nests to look at us, waddling practically in between our feet and turning their heads slowly and curiously. I’ve never seen a wild animal so curious and so unafraid, and so serene.

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We took the boat out into the shallow, clear water in the shoals of the island. Sea turtles swam up to our boat. Schools of parrotfish flickered under us. Everyone got out of the boat to snorkel. I never learned to snorkel so I dove without a mask, looking through the clear water at the coral colonies under us.

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From Viejamar I took an overnight bus to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, high in the mountains at around 2800 meters in elevation. That first morning after bad vibes at the first hostel I was supposed to stay at (unluckily named “vibes”), and after I found a much prettier hostel looking out across a wide valley to the high mountains beyond, I took one of the free walking tours in the old center of Quito. A girl from Guayaquil led a group of about 20 of us through the central market (I’m crazy about markets), through several plazas and past historic buildings, telling us wild stories about some of the crazy presidents in Ecuador’s past (and unfortunately, its present), showing us monuments to the fighters who were among the first in South America to rebel against Spanish rule. Quito is a beautiful, interesting city, and I barely began to discover it.

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I went to an Easter Vigil service in a building that is home to at least three different Christian churches (one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking, one German-speaking). The service was small and disorganized, possibly because it was held in three different languages; but the pastors and priests made the most of it. I went back the next morning for Easter, feeling a little strange as i always do when I visit a congregation just to pass through. Churches I think are not places that people generally pass through. They are places you come to find family and heal wounds and plead for forgiveness and contemplate the meaning of your life. They’re definitely not a place for tourists. But a tourist I was and they were friendly and gracious about it, as people in churches usually are.

If you’re in Quito, the city in South America that rests on the official equator, you have to go and visit the official monument that marks the official equator line. It’s touristic and Disneyworld-ish, but you can’t come all the way to the equator and not go. So I went, taking a bus 90 minutes from my hostel in Quito, walking around and taking photos, and feeling a little weird in this surreal fabricated Disneyworld village, wandering around alone in the morning on the day after Easter when everything was quiet and most of the shop keepers weren’t even awake enough to try to pressure me into buying a tacky souvenir. And it was interesting to think, wow, I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere this whole time and now I can just hop back to the northern hemisphere, like I’m teleporting home or something. And it was disappointing to visit the equator line and find that the scientific exhibits were closed, so I wandered around looking at a photography exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the experiments conducted by French scientists who were responsible for measuring the bulge of the earth at the equator.

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And then it was time for another 90-minute bus ride back to Quito and convincing the receptionists at my hostel to help me with directions to the airport (is it that difficult to believe I would rather pay $5 and take the bus than $35 for a taxi? Apparently so.) and taking the bus which was cheap and fast and got me to the airport for my flight to Bogota.

And then it was barely more than an hour before I landed back in Bogota, back in the city where I started my journey through South America over seven months ago.

Huanchaco and Trujillo

Huanchaco and Trujillo
26-27 march 2015

26 March 2015
I wake up in the predawn light with my green Oltursa blanket tangled around me and my feet on the seat next to me which by some miracle remained empty all night. Around sunup I start to see the concrete and brick outskirts of a city, which grows to larger shops and warehouses by the time we reach the bus company’s office where Harmeet and I disembark. To exit the station we have to squeeze through a single door in which six taxi drivers are standing, jostling each other, blocking our way, screaming in our faces and trying to grab out bags. The further north I go, the more aggressive the taxi drivers become. We pace past them serenely and wait for the prices they’re offering for Huanchaco to go down and haggle a little further with a guy driving a rickety station wagon. He drives us through the thick morning haze, out of Trujillo, past the outskirts and the airport, past a huge clay brick Inka ruin, into a small beach town of low concrete buildings, nearly silent in the early morning.

Things are weird at the hostel where Harmeet has a reservation, so I make sure she’s checked in all right and head next door to a different hostel I had in mind, where the owner checks me in early with no fuss and leads me through a lush, shady garden hung with hammocks to a little stuffy room off the courtyard. I sling my backpack on a top bunk and sneak past a few backpackers sleeping with eye masks on to freshen up before I meet Harmeet again for breakfast.

We eat at my hostel, in the restaurant on the first floor with the door open to the ocean. While we’re waiting for coffee we see a wave come rushing in, surging over the little sandback and over the concrete planters, over the curb and halfway across the street. The rough sea seems to be washing this part of the beach away.

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Huanchaco looks a little worse for wear – the beach is rough and strewn with large, heavy rocks that clatter in the heavy undertow after each violent wave rolls back. In the morning as we walk south along the sand we see more sand banks eaten away by the waves. They say Huanchaco wasn’t always like this – I read that a few years ago someone built a breakwave – some kind of sea wall – further south and it’s been affecting the currents here, making the waves stronger and more destructive. There are banners up around town protesting the sea wall and in the evening a crowd of about 30 people stand shouting outside the municipal building and parade down the street, blocking traffic in protest.

There’s not a lot to do in Huanchaco except drink, eat ceviche, and surf. Harmeet and I aren’t here to surf, so we spend the afternoon and long beautiful ocean evening in bars and restaurants. The ceviche here is different than in Lima, the fish is denser and richer. I loved the ceviche in Lima, but this is something else, something even better. We bar hop a little, sitting first in a surf hostel with beautiful plush antique furniture, then in a little tiki-style bar. In between we stop at a street vendor for anticucho. I need water so I walk for the first time away from Huanchaco’s touristic main boulevard. One block from the fun, brightly lit and decorated beachfront bars it’s back to quiet streets with concrete buildings and little kiosks – typical residential South America, at least in my experience. It’s familiar. One block past this, things get a little rougher, more potholed, stray dogs looking a little more mangey. I stop at a kiosk planning to buy water, call to the attendant who must be in the back somewhere. I glance around idly as I’m waiting and make eye contact with a guy across the street who wanders out of the doorway to a house holding a little jar half full of liquid. He stares at me and slowly vomits into the jar, never breaking eye contact. I decide I’m not thirsty. “Couldn’t you find water?” Harmeet asks me back at the anticucho stand. “Things got weird,” I say.

27 march 2015
Harmeet and I eat breakfast at the vegetarian cafe Otra Cosa (an omelette and two coffees for me, crispy falafel for her). The owner, a friendly Dutch guy, gives us directions to a bus terminal in Trujillo. An actual bus terminal! This is what I’ve been missing since Ica, where I stopped finding big bus terminals with a bunch of companies where you can shop around for tickets to wherever you’re going. In Lima we had to pick a bus company, figure out where in that massive city their office was located, and go to buy tickets in advance. Harmeet and I pack and grab a bus to town, going to find this mythical bus terminal.

As it turns out, the terminal only hosts bus companies with routes going south, and it’s another two hours and three taxi rides back and forth across Trujillo before Harmeet has a ticket to Mancora and I have mine to Guayaquil and we’re finally sitting down to lunch in a little cafe near the historical center. Neither of us can leave until the evening, so we kill some hours walking through Trujillo’s colonial center, to a strange toy museum with dolls and antique toy cars and dollhouses and rocking horses and marionettes, back out to another cafe with divine espresso, and finally along a pedestrian street where we buy souvenirs and stroll with everyone else in the cool evening air and finally say goodbye when Harmeet squeezes into a taxi to her bus terminal and I wander around downtown Trujillo alone for a few hours before heading to my bus terminal for the midnight bus to Ecuador.

Midnight comes and goes at the bus terminal, but not my bus to Guayaquil, and at first I’m surprised and worried that the bus isn’t leaving on time. By the time one of the guys working at the terminal comes around to tell us it will be another three hours before the bus comes I’ve reminded myself that this is South America and almost nothing happens on time, and I’ve relaxed and tuned up my rusty Spanish chatting with the other two sleepy people waiting for the bus, Alan and Anna, he from Peru and she from Andalucia in Spain. We all sleep on the floor of the strange little waiting room until the bus finally arrives around 3:30.