Oh the Places You’ll Go if You Visit Ecuador!

I’ve been helping my organization, Teach English Volunteer, quite a bit.  Mostly, I’ve taken it upon myself to improve the application process and make things much more clear for potential volunteers.  If you all knew how truly murky the details of what I’d be doing here in Ecuador were before I arrived, you’d probably be appalled that I took a leap of faith with such a young, disorganized volunteer program.  But, all’s well that ends well, right?

Anyway, I’ve added more details to the website; created a volunteer blog so that people interested in coming can be reassured with the knowledge that there are real, live people volunteering with this organization; created an application (using http://www.zoho.com) for candidates to fill out- the results of which are automatically sent to the TEV email address that I check regularly; and I review these applications and schedule Skype interviews with candidates who sound promising.  The truth is that I kind of love giving these Skype interviews. 

They consist of ten questions, and generally last for about 45 minutes, but give me a chance to both figure out how well-suited the person would be for the project, and discuss the organization in depth with the candidate, so s/he can decide whether or not it’s a good fit for him/her.  What I love about these interviews is that they give me a chance to speak with strangers from all over the world (I just checked my TEV Potential Volunteer Excel spreadsheet and I’ve given 21 Skype interviews… these PVs have been from: the US, England, Poland, Germany, Maldives, Portugal, France, and Australia), many of which I connect with effortlessly (some, I’ve chatted with for an hour and a half), and almost wish we could somehow meet and be best friends.  AND I like giving these interviews because each time I talk with someone who desperately wants to volunteer in Ecuador, the way I did a year ago, and I hear why they want to work for free, learn another language, and live in another country, it’s like I’m that person dying to come all over again, and I’m inspired and rejuvenated, determined to be the kind of volunteer I’d want coming to work here with TEV.

One of the questions I ask these people is: Tell me, if you’ve already researched Ecuador, what you know about it.  This question allows me, after they’ve answered, to give them a brief summary of Ecuador; go over the food, the people, the biodiversity, and the traveling opportunities.  I really believe that Ecuador is under-rated.  For being as small as it is, about the size of Colorado, Ecuador is loaded with natural diversity.  It is actually considered one of 17 “megadiverse” countries, countries that “have within their borders more than two thirds of our planet’s biological wealth, its biodiversity.”  There are four distinct geographical areas: the Galapagos Islands, La Costa (the hot, coastal zone), La Sierra (the Andean highlands), and Amazonas (the Amazon Jungle region).  I always explain to people interested in working in Ecuador that this combination of incredible biodiversity and inexpensive travel (in Ecuador, buses generally cost about a dollar per hour of travel) makes Ecuador one of the best countries to live in and explore.  The weekend outing possibilities are endless.

Like I said in my last post, after returning from the US, I realized how fleeting my Ecuador days were.  With a new financial comfort (thanks to my tax refund!), I decided that I needed to- I always use the Spanish word when I’m explaining this (love that they have a word for this concept)- aprovechar (to make the most of) my time and do some traveling with my volunteer friends.  In a culture that is incredibly family oriented, it’s not as easy as one might think to say “Hey host mom, see you Monday morning!” but, fortunately, Reyna and I are in a really good place (I think we’ve both made compromises, and have come to understand much more about our contrasting cultures) and she was very supportive of me exploring Ecuador.

The first trip we took was to Lake Quilotoa.  This is an old, erupted volcano that is filled at the bottom with water that has a notable emerald color because of all the volcanic minerals.  I went with Bekah, Alice, and our tour guide friend Jorge.

The view from the top of the volcano.

We hiked down to the lake, which was a crazy steep decent.  After spending about an hour and a half down there, we headed back up.  This may have been the hardest hike I’ve ever done, because it’s SO steep!  By the time we reached the top, we were more ready than ever for the 4-hour bus ride home.

Smart people took mules back up to the top. We wanted to save our $5, and get an intense workout.

The trail.

Second trip: Baños!  You may remember that I went to Baños my very first weekend in Ecuador (if you need a refresher, you can read about that here).  It’s definitely a very touristy place, but I suppose that’s because it’s fun and beautiful.  It sits on the outskirts of the highland region, more on the Amazon’s side of the fence.  The town itself is loaded with hotels, restaurants, shops, adventure sport agencies, hot springs, and discotheques.  It’s fun to browse the shops and look at the hand-made souvenirs, but the items are more expensive than they would be in other parts of Ecuador, and the people in Baños are not willing to barter the way they do in other parts of the country.   It’s what’s near Baños that is what puts this place on the map: the beautiful waterfalls.  Like I said, it’s on the border of La Sierra and Amazonas, so there are many breath-taking cliffs, and therefore, many waterfalls.

My friends (Bekah and Alice came with me, plus we made a friend from Finland, Mirkka) and I took advantage ofBaños’ crazy nightlife and partied hard both Friday and Saturday night.  I never go out clubbing in Kansas, but here in Ecuador, I’ve learned that I like to dance!  We had a nice time, and loved getting to practice our Spanish with guys we danced with.  They all said to me “You sound so Ecuadorian!” which I love to hear.

Here we are, about to go out on Friday night. Bekah, being weird in the background, has to be my favorite thing about this silly picture.

Saturday, after sleeping in much later than we meant to, we went to one of the many outdoor sport agencies in the town and rented bikes for the day for only $6.  If we’d have been more ambitious and punctual, we could have risen early in the morning and biked all the way from Baños to Puyo, a 35-ish mile ride.  The trail is loaded with scenic views and places to lock the bike up and hike.  Because it was raining, and we got started late, we just biked for about 2 hours.  We made it to the waterfall Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron), then hitched a ride back to Baños.  We were cold and soaking wet, but it was still a nice time.

Cascada Manto de la Novia (Bride's Veil)

See the parrot? 🙂

Views like this made it hard to focus on the bike riding. Though, concentration was essential because cars were whizzing by on the left and there were only steep drop-offs on the right.

I think I've ridden in the back of a stranger's truck about five times now. Totally normal here.

Sunday, before heading home, we went to one of the many hot springs.  You really need to go super early in order for the water to be piping hot and clean, and to beat the crowds.  Again, we didn’t do so well with getting up early, so the pool was loaded with people.

Quite the view, no?

Next trip: Chimborazo!  Chimborazo is Ecuador’s tallest mountain, and, as I mentioned in this post several months ago, the point on the earth that is closest to outer space.  With a peak summit of 6,268 metres (20,564 ft), it’s a huge tourist attraction for Ecuador’s mountain climbing visitors.  It’s only about an hour from Riobamba, and it almost always serves as my compass here in the city (I don’t know cardinal directions of Riobamba, but I can orient myself using Riobamba’s surrounding mountains).  Of course, my friends and I are not even mountain climbing amateurs, so we made no attempt to summit the grueling mountain.  Instead, we (Alice; Felicia; Celena- I’ve not mentioned her, she’s a newish volunteer from California [one of the volunteers I interviewed in January!]; and Jorge) hiked from the first refuge to the second refuge (2,000 meters above sea level/ about 16,000 feet- the highest I had ever been in my life).  The hike was not very strenuous, but for people visiting from other countries or Ecuador’s coastal region, the altitude was killer.

Celena, me, Felicia, and Alice.

We took a few breaks on the way up, to chow on sugar and drink water.

After enjoying a nice hot cup of tea in the second refuge, we took advantage of the SNOW! Alice, Felicia, and I- who have been in Ecuador since October- were all beyond excited to get a taste of winter. Here are my silly friends, making snow angels.

Whoever said one needs a sled to sled?

The wild llamas of Chimborazo. We saw many of them. How they have enough to eat in this barren land is beyond me.

The last, most recent trip: LA PLAYA!  More specifically, Montañita, Los Frailes, and Puerto Lopez.  Again, Alice and Bekah accompanied me on this longer trip.  We actually asked for two days off in order to have a relaxing vacation on the beach.  We left Riobamba at 10:30 Friday night, had to switch buses at 3 am in Guayaquil, and arrived in Montañita at around 7 am Saturday morning.  Montañita, like Baños, is a very popular tourist destination in Ecuador.  It too has a crazy night life, tons of restaurants, tourist shops, and hotels.  It is also known as a surfer’s haven.

The expansive beach in Montañita.

I´ll be taking beach sunset pictures until the day I die. I don´t care if they look the same. I adore them.

We stayed in Montañita for one night, and headed on Sunday to Puerto Lopez.  Puerto Lopez is much more easy-going and natural than Montañita.  The best thing about this little town, though, is its proximity to what is known as Ecuador’s most pristine beach, Los Frailes.  On Monday, we took a 15 minute mototaxi ride to this national park, then spent the afternoon there.

My friends and I at the beautiful Los Frailes National Park. I'm. so. sunburt.... still peeling.

Alice being awesome.

We took a break from sunbathing (or, burning) and swimming and hiked to the viewpoint of Los Frailes, and were rewarded with a magnificent view.

Me, Bekah, and Alice at the Los Frailes overlook.

Monday night, after taking cold showers (hot water is completely unnecessary in Ecuador’s coastal area) and changing, we treated ourselves to a delicious dinner.  Goodness, I love seafood.  Then, we tested out the chill tiki bars that line Puerto Lopez’ shore, made some Ecuadorian friends, and salsa danced on the beach with nothing but stars over our heads until 2 am.

This mouth-watering dish? $2.50!

We took the 9-hour ride home Tuesday, sunburt, but happy.  This was the last trip we have taken.  I had planned on taking more, but am out of both time and money.

Other places in Ecuador that I have been to and already written about include:

Quito

Coca

Remember when I went to Coca? It's the place where I ate bugs.

Muisne and Atacamas

Atacamas- another beach town with a party atmosphere.

Places I will have to visit when I come back to Ecuador in a few years (of course I’m going to come back here and visit: I have family an Ecuadorian family that I know I’m going to miss when I go home) are:

Cuenca- known as the most beautiful city in Ecuador.

Otavalo- this town, in the northern tip of Ecuador, has a massive market every Saturday.

Guayaquil- the largest city in Ecuador, located on the coast.

The GALAPAGOS!  Unfortunately, this trip is a bit expensive.  A week tour will cost around $1,000.

I really do believe that this small country has so much to offer.  I hope that after reading this, you start planning your vacation to Ecuador.  There’s a lot more to it than Darwin and the Galapagos.

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