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Ecuador

It’s where I started my trip but not where I am ending.  I was sad to have only seen Ecuador and Brazil on my first loop around South America, so I meant to make a quick jaunt through Ecuador before heading onward.  After many misadventures and delays, I find myself finally setting off two months after I arrived.  Like I often do, I linger to check out all the little corners.  My last stop was in the coastal city of Machala, not a common stop for your average tourist.  However my friend I met in Cuenca lived there and I told her I’d visit.  It turned out to be a very cleaned up city regentrifying with lots of parks and green spaces.  I’d also been lured in by the promises of the best food in Ecuador, and it truly was great.  Whether that was because the city is covered in delicious meats and seafood or because my friend lived there and knew the best places, I will never know.

There's pretty vistas everywhere.

There’s pretty vistas everywhere.

I stayed a whole month on a farm learning about sustainable practices.  I also learned that I’m not very good at living with a bunch of people in the same room for very long.  Luckily Ecuador is cheap enough to allow me to travel in my own room like I’ve been doing most of this trip.  It also gave me a month’s break from learning Spanish for better or worse.  It was a place to rest my weary feet for a while.  Unfortunately it was also the start of my bad luck.  Turns out getting your credit card number stolen is just the tip of the iceberg and I had two other robbery incidences afterward that relieved me of my wallet, phone and later my iPod.  Perhaps I’d gotten lack with my vigilance after 14 months without incident.

That is not to say Ecuador is a bad place, most people are wonderful.  There are just a few bad apples that really like taking stuff and even the Ecuadorians are stuck worrying about it.  My friend told me most Ecuadorians don’t wear jewelry in public for this reason.

Showing the celebration of some sort of festival that involves greasing a pole with lard while the kids clamber up to try to get the tamales and sweets stored up above.  Note that only one woman seems concerned among the adults.

Showing the celebration of some sort of festival that involves greasing a pole with lard while the kids clamber up to try to get the tamales and sweets stored up above. Note that only one woman seems concerned among the adults.

I’ve been fortunate to be around for so many festivals.  From the Dia de los Difuntos I was around for last year, still one of my favorites, to the various end of the year or new year festivites, I enjoyed the Ecuadorian sense of celebration.

That's a sweet horse decked out for the holidays.

That’s a sweet horse decked out for the holidays.

Ecuador is really a tiny country in the grand scheme of the continent.  Yet in this little space there are various types of beaches, mountains, and jungles.  Both Ecuador and Peru claim to be the densest concentration of various land types and animals, and there’s only one way for me to be sure.  Alas the food is a little less varied, although a little different in each region.  It generally involves giant piles of as many types of carbs as they can fit with a little bit of meat and no vegetables.

I thought these bad boys that you find in every market were fried but I guess they get their crackly bubbly skin in the oven.

I thought these bad boys that you find in every market were fried but I guess they get their crackly bubbly skin in the oven.

Not to say there aren’t some weird eats.  I didn’t even try the giant grilled grubs in the Amazon.

An expensive delicacy is whole grilled guy (guinea pig) which I tried more than once.  It's a greasy if light on meat delight.

An expensive delicacy is whole grilled guy (guinea pig) which I tried more than once. It’s a greasy if light on meat delight.

I’m not quite all too sure where two months went but it was rather enjoyable.  Sure, it’s not the most outwardly stunning place but the people are laid-back and friendly.  I really think I enjoy lounging around a country like this more than I like lining up at the Machu Picchus of the world constantly.  Ecuador is a nice place to be for a while.  Next up, southward to Peru!

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From the colonial cities of Loja and Cuenca I moved on to hippie Vilcabamba.  I came excited to hike and bike my way around a lush green valley.

Pretty valley and nice weather, what more could you want?

Pretty, lush valley and year round pleasant weather, what more could you want?

Then I got sick.  So I sat on a hammock all day.

I like sitting in hammocks anyways, but being sick means I'll do it all day long.

I like sitting in hammocks anyways, but being sick means I’ll do it all day long.  The beautiful garden full of butterflies and hummingbirds is a bonus.

I did take one light walk.  To make up for my botanical garden misadventure in Loja I went to the zoo and orchid center.  However this is a small town in Ecuador so the zoo had things like common chickens and a cage of pigeons.

Well, now I think I understand why indigenous art looks like that.  That bird's head is crazy looking!

Well, now I think I understand why indigenous art looks like that. That bird’s head is crazy looking!

While wandering back to town I passed a gerontology center.  The town is famed for having people living well past 100 (to 130 even they say!)  When researchers showed up, they found this fishy, tested ages, and realized the people here either forgot or make up ages.  No one is over 100.  Whoops.  Still, if you were going to live a long time, this would be the place.

The roadside was lined with houses, little shops, and fields of mysterious plants I can't identify like these vertical sunflower porcupine things.

The roadside was lined with houses, little shops, and fields of mysterious plants I can’t identify like these vertical sunflower porcupine things.

I honestly didn’t do much for half a week in this town.  I enjoyed some repe (green plantain, cheese, and cilantro) soup and cecina (grilled or fried sun dried meat) that I didn’t get to in Loja.  Turns out the repe I tried so hard to find in Loja is so normal it’s just served as the free soup with lunches.  Whoops.  Otherwise, I just chilled out.  It was nice.

Loja is a town in southern Andean Ecuador that is known for having some of the best and most unique cuisine in the country.  It is a lovely and modern colonial town with the tourist area overlapping with the downtown area.  Not that many tourists really stop here, but I stopped to get a taste.  I’d found this website http://www.ecuador-travel-planner.com/lojafood that stated specialties included all sorts of pork, delicious tamale and other corn wrapped goodies, baked goods and desserts, and horse.  Alas, it turns out most restaurants only served variations of the husk wrapped goods and little else different from the rest of the country, so I ended up only here for a day.

Still, Loja has a charm that I could see being pleasant to live in if one was to choose a city in Ecuador.

There's a weird, almost Disneyland-esque quality to things in Loja.  This is the town gate that had a statue of conquistadors and I think Don Quixote.

There’s a weird, almost Disneyland-esque quality to things in Loja. This is the town gate that had a statue of conquistadors and I think Don Quixote.

Failing to find any delicious pernil (roast pork) or horse, I settled for something I’d tried in Banos but was told was the best here, cuy.  I find the meat tender and a bit greasy in a good way.  There was a lovely spicy green sauce to go on it that helped too.  The pink cup in the corner is horchata, a flower based tea that is often sweetened.

Hello ass end of a guinea pig, pile of mote (large corn), and potatoes.

Hello ass end of a guinea pig, pile of mote (large corn), and potatoes.

Well, if every restaurant is going to have the same menu, I might as well try it.  I went to Loja institution El Tamal Lojano and ordered one of every possible food item.  Every other table mostly had one tamale a person.  Although the set menus of boron, eggs and bread seemed pretty large to me as well. I was full of delicious regret.

From left to right clockwise: boron de chicharron, quimbolito, humita, and pork tamale.  I enjoyed the savory ones but found the humita and quimbolito to be steamed dry sponge cakes too reminiscent of Chinese New Year's steamed cakes in a bad way.

From left to right clockwise: boron de chicharron, quimbolito, humita, and pork tamale. I enjoyed the savory ones but found the humita and quimbolito to be steamed dry sponge cakes too reminiscent of Chinese New Year’s steamed cakes in a bad way.

I also realized too late that ordering cafe con leche (with milk) meant I got Nescafe instead of what looked like a nice drip coffee other people got.  After stuffing myself silly I headed over to a museum to check out Loja’s other namesake, music.  Sadly it was somewhat disorganized and mostly in Spanish so I didn’t spend much time in there.  I did enjoy the fellow practicing on his violin and the other Lojano music blasting out in every room.

The music museum also had a Disneyland feel to it with the manicured garden and pastel colors.

The music museum also had a Disneyland feel to it with the manicured garden and pastel colors.

As I had too much time after the museum before I could shove in one more meal, I tried to make it to the oldest botanical garden in Ecuador.  The hotel manager gave me directions to go by bus.  Some things you just get used to in Ecuador, like terrible directions or an inability to say anything but yes, even if they don’t know.

“Is there only one roundabout?”
“Yes!”

No, no there’s not.  There’s at least two.  The first one is in fact almost two miles from where I had to be and I ended up taking a bit of a trek.  It was also where the buses ended, which I had asked and was emphatically told, no that wasn’t where the bus line ended.  It’s never any bad intent as much as most people in developing countries just do not seem to understand the concept of maps or directions.  I arrived at the gardens to find out I had hit the beginning of the siesta that was left unmentioned in the tourism information map and guidebooks.  Ah, Ecuador.  At that point I turned around and headed back to the market to try Chanfaina, a paella like pork and rice dish.  Alas I could barely eat a few bites as I was still stuffed from breakfast and so I headed onward to my next destination.  Later Loja, I’m sure you’re more awesome to live in.

What is a weekend?  It used to be that thing I awaited for all week.  Those days you started planning for midway through the week.  What is it now?  I hardly know the date except weekends and holidays are those annoying times the streets are clogged and it’s harder to find a place to sleep.  Bundled with the fact that I have travel fatigue, it meant for what could’ve been a terrible weekend trip to the relatively expensive, gringo filled tourist city of Cuenca.  Why no, I do not care to do a tour or to see another bloody church.  Yet, I got introduced to a friend of a Couch Surfer and it was a packed weekend of fun.

First up was visiting the Museo del Banco Central and Pumapungo.  It had exhibits (some reminiscent of elementary school dioramas) of all of Ecuador’s various cultures.  Behind the museum is the ruins of an Incan town destroyed to build the buildings of Cuenca.

There's also a beautiful garden and rescue aviary.

There’s also a beautiful garden and rescue aviary.

Ecuador is home to a whole lot of birds and flowers.

Ecuador is home to a whole lot of birds and flowers.

It’s been a little bit since Europe which means my church fatigue has lessened.  That’s helpful as there are churches every block or two it seems.

It's a good way to remember where you are in town.

It’s a good way to remember where you are in town.

While I found the churches a little ragged in Quito with their broken stained glass windows, Cuenca had no such issues.

Am I in Europe?

Am I in Europe?

No, I am not in Europe.  Sometimes there’s just weird stuff.

"Who is Juan Pablo?" "The last pope!" "OH! JOHN PAUL!"

“Who is Juan Pablo?” “The last pope!” “OH! JOHN PAUL!”

It was a day of parades and celebration, some sort of religious festival related to no longer sinning but mostly celebrated today as lots of joking.  I was confused why I only saw mostly white baby Jesuses being carried around with a few black ones in a country full of mostly brown people.  End your European servitude!

I didn't know Ecuadorians had Maypoles… or Januarypoles.

I didn’t know Ecuadorians had Maypoles… or Januarypoles.

There’s a lot of leatherwork in this country and it’s visible on the men as part of some of their traditional dress.

Both the men and women have heavy traditional costumes for the cold Sierran weather that sure makes this jump-heavy dancing hard.

Both the men and women have heavy traditional costumes for the cold Sierran weather that sure makes this jump-heavy dancing hard.

All over town you’d see horses, people dressed as the three wise men, and hear all sorts of yelling and singing.

A "banda de puebla", or town band blaring across the square at a second band.

A “banda de puebla”, or town band blaring across the square at a second band.

As evening approaches, it was possible to see groups gathering all over town in costume getting ready to join the big parade of the evening.  For me the highlight may have been wandering the deep fry food stalls lining the entire parade route.  I watched about five or six floats of the weirdly Avatar themed bunch before we all got tired and headed home.

These terrifying and well organized clowns were on their way to the night parade.

These terrifying and well organized clowns were on their way to the night parade.

On my last morning, I went to the oasis of cheap delicious eats even in pricey tourist towns, the local market.

This three story market was likely the cleanest I've seen in a developing country.

This three story market was likely the cleanest I’ve seen in a developing country.

On my hurried walk back to pack and head out, I saw perhaps the most beautiful building I saw all weekend.  The whole town is covered in pleasing colonial buildings that make a great ambiance.

I struggled to find a good picture of colonial Cuenca and found it on my way out.

I struggled to find a good picture of colonial Cuenca and found it on my way out.

Cuenca is, for a short vacation, a lovely and picturesque city.  I imagine it’s quite the pleasant place to live with an interesting art scene, international food scene, and beautiful clean architecture and streets.  I have enjoyed my time here but am happy to move on quickly as well.  Onward and southward on my slow motion towards Peru.

I rushed back to Banos post Amazonian adventure for what was said to be a great new years celebration.

Back to Banos, with a view!

Back to Banos, with a view!

There are all sorts of traditions here.  The big one is the giant puppets known as Monigotes that are stuffed with hay and burned at midnight.  They are even clothed in real clothing.  The men dress in sexy drag and the women wear yellow bras for good fortune and red underwear for good luck.  Banos is covered in people making the paper mache people of all sizes from two to twenty feet.  There are various huge concert stages set up on what feels like every other corner.  There was an impressive two port potties made of painted cardboard with an out pipe straight to two inches above a sewer.  The actual day is a town wide music festival of people dancing through the streets.  Oddly, or perhaps fittingly for Ecuador, there isn’t really a countdown and fireworks and puppets start burning at random intervals around midnight.  Then, I assume for more good luck, one jumps over the burning puppets.

Sure I forgot to leave my mask on, but Whee!

Sure I forgot to leave my mask on, but Whee!

The festivities don’t stop at new year’s eve here, and I’m told they’ll go on all week.  First up is the new year’s day devil parade in the nearby town of Pillaro.  Sounds more exciting than the rose parade I grew up with.  The family that runs the hostel I’m in was nice enough to bring me to this small town.

We stopped at a town that specializes in Ecuadorian arepas that are nothing like Colombian or Venezuelan ones.  This one was pumpkin.

We stopped at a town that specializes in Ecuadorian arepas that are nothing like Colombian or Venezuelan ones. This one was pumpkin.

We got there a bit early and took the extra time to wander around town admiring all the handicrafts.

The first mask I saw was plastered in all sorts of horns.  A hint of things to come.

The first mask I saw was plastered in all sorts of horns. A hint of things to come.

I was rather impressed with all these hand made masks and how expensive they were for this country.

I'm not sure why, but there were a lot of human masks.

I’m not sure why, but there were a lot of human masks.  Refreshingly it had faces of all sorts, not just pretty ones.

The real attraction was definitely the devil masks though.

So many devil masks.

So many devil masks.

The fancy ones start having extra horns, extra teeth, even extra heads or dragons attached.

This is some Alien like monster action.  Wooga wooga wooga!

This is some Alien like monster action. Wooga wooga wooga!

These masks are going to haunt my dreams and I wondered what exactly made them so darned amazing.  Nothing I’d seen made of paper mache looked like this.

Then we found out it was real animal horns.  That lower left mask even has real dog teeth.  Creepy.

Then we found out it was real animal horns. That lower left mask even has real dog teeth. Creepy.

Luckily not all the masks are so terrifying.

This one was gaudy with LED lights and glitter.

This one was gaudy with LED lights and glitter.

The parade was running on Ecuadorian time, so it was scheduled for an hour and a half after it started last year.  Except, it’s Ecuador, so it started yet another hour and half after that.  We took a break to go step in the local church, every town has one.

Why is there a creepy patron baby saint of cops with Ecuadorian flag belt?

Why is there a creepy patron baby saint of cops with Ecuadorian flag belt?

Finally, after the crowd had gathered for a while the parade started.

That's a lot of devils.  The groups of kids were particularly cute.  They all walked down the street grunting like demons.

That’s a lot of devils. The groups of kids were particularly cute. They all walked down the street grunting like demons.

It wasn’t just for devils though, the people masks made a great return.

I'm not sure if this was a continuation of new year's eve cross dressing but they were supposed to be Spaniards.

I’m not sure if this was a continuation of new year’s eve cross dressing but they were supposed to be Spaniards.

Every devil carried stuff in their hand.  A lot of them carried water or alcohol, there were a lot of whips, and most disturbingly, lots of animals.

The most popular animal was dead skunks.  Some still reeked of skunk.

The most popular animal was dead skunks. Some still reeked of skunk.

Although there was one thing worse than a skunk.

This hawk looks like it just died today.  Disease ridden, anyone?

This hawk looks like it just died today. Disease ridden, anyone?

It wasn’t all depressing though, someone brought their pet.

This iguana looked pretty calm about all the ruckus around him.

This iguana looked pretty calm about all the ruckus around him.

As the parade went on, the costumes got bigger and more elaborate.

This guy could barely walk without whacking into the crowd.

This guy could barely walk without whacking into the crowd.

The parade went on for multiple hours but we got tired after a couple.  I’m glad I got to see it though.  After all this travel and excitement I’m taking a few days of down time in Banos to, as my friend put it, let me soul catch up to my body.  Banos is a town of hot springs and it is nice to soak and do nothing in them.  Happy Devilish 2013!

I arrived in Banos weeks ago, the gateway between the Andes and Amazon.  Every tour operator in town is trying to sell you a package that is for some reason twice as much as most (probably outdated) guides tell you they should be, especially given the two 20 hour travel days involved.  $70-80 a day to go to an area that I’ve gotten confirmation from Ecuadorian tour guides is currently dangerous?  No thanks.  I considered going in another country or just sucking it up.  Then I met a nice American family while rafting that was taking an independent go at it and they let me tag along.  Warning: unlike my experience in the rest of Ecuador, there was a lot of gringo prices/overcharging on a small scale on this trip to get to the jungle.

So where does one start?  To head to Yasuni National Park, you get a bus from wherever you are to Coca, a riverside oil city.  If you take a night bus like we did, you’ll arrive groggy and confused at the incredibly modern bus station.  It had design reminiscent of the Madrid airport, was extremely bright, and even included a free movie theater.  From there you should catch a two dollar taxi to the port next to the Coop de Transportes Fluviales Orellana building.  That’s a mouthful I can’t pronounce, so just say you want to go to Nuevo Rocafuerte and they’ll know.  It appears by now they have boats every week day going in both directions but there was limited boating service due to the holidays.

We stopped for breakfast before getting on the boat.  The Oresco restaurant recommended by guidebooks wasn't open like it was written to be (shock), so we ended up at a fancy hotel that fed croissants to these monkeys.  Let the wildlife begin!

We stopped for breakfast before getting on the boat. The Oresco restaurant recommended by guidebooks wasn’t open like it was written to be (shock), so we ended up at a fancy hotel that fed croissants to these monkeys. Let the wildlife begin!

The port authority wasn’t open before the boat was to leave at 7:30 AM so we asked the times of a guy cleaning the place and bought tickets from random guys with clipboards at the port.  This guy sat there hemming and hawing about whether to give us the local price ($15) and we’d seen online reports of people getting charged $20 before another guy and our insistence at talking to the company finally got him to give in.

The scenery is exciting for the first hour.  Then there's about nine more.

The scenery is exciting for the first hour. Then there’s about nine more.

The boat ride is about a ten hour affair in the high water season, longer if you go during low river season.  It’s faster to get to Nuevo Rocafuerte because it’s downstream.  The seats are pretty uncomfortable and at least one of the boats doesn’t even have seat backings for you.  Bring a cushion and some cards.  The locals seemed fascinated as we played games.

While it was mostly pretty thick jungle, albeit shorter than I expected, I particularly liked this grove of tall spindly trees.

While it was mostly pretty thick jungle, albeit shorter than I expected, I particularly liked this grove of tall spindly trees.

Once we arrived we had trouble finding the hostel recommended to us by other travelers.  Turns out it was two blocks straight off the port and about five or so right, until you reach an ecotourism college.  At the end of the ecotourism college, take a left and the hostel run by them is at the end of the road.  They had comfy beds and friendly employees that knew Manuel, the guide we were looking for. It’s a small town, so when people figured out we were looking for the place, the employees found us.

More wildlife right outside my door.  Ribbit!  This guy was pretty big.

More wildlife right outside my door. Ribbit! This guy was pretty big.

It turns out Manuel is part of a community an hour and a half away called Martinica, in Cocaya nestled between the more famous Yasuni and Cuyabeno National Parks.  We took a canoe past Ecuadorian border control, waved to Peru, and ended up at their community house.  Why yes, we’ll take a whole reserve for ourselves.

Our guide Miguel ran inside and came back out with this centipede he let crawl all over him.

Our guide Miguel ran inside and came back out with this centipede he let crawl all over him.

As soon as we got to the community house, they tried to lure in some dolphins for us to see.  It seemed only one of us would see one at a time, as they breeched quickly and disappeared back under.  The river was high and running muddy and fast, making for bad dolphin watching.

After the tour we watched videos and realized the dolphins come up in clear water and eat the fish out of the guides' hands or sometimes even their mouths.  This time we had no such luck.

After the tour we watched videos and realized the dolphins come up in clear water and eat the fish out of the guides’ hands or sometimes even their mouths. This time we had no such luck.

As we had no luck spotting any pink dolphins and had trouble even seeing gray ones, we dressed up in wellies and headed deeper into their reserve.

I went to Disneyland a lot as a kid and kept thinking the guide was going to stop to fire a fake gun at rhino ears sticking out of the river.

I went to Disneyland a lot as a kid and kept thinking the guide was going to stop to fire a fake gun at rhino ears sticking out of the river.

Every twist and turn of lush green looked the same to me and I could’ve been easily lost.  Luckily our guide knew every inch of the land he grew up in and would stop the boat to show us wildlife or to duck into lagoons.  Parrots, toucans, and macaws flew majestically in the high reaches of the trees as we spotted other colorful birds and monkeys lower.

There were self sustaining little forests on islands in the lagoons full of birds.

There were self sustaining little forests on islands in the lagoons full of birds.

The day was gray and water muddy but it was still gorgeous as we floated down the much smaller and intimate calm river.

We could see such beautiful reflections as we floated along.

We could see such beautiful reflections as we floated along.

After a bit of river bird watching we stopped to take a short nature hike.  The guide seemed to know everything and would stop when none of us saw a thing to point out a ridiculously camouflaged frog or tapir tracks.

"Here, taste these ants, they taste like lemon!"  Indeed, those ant eggs did taste like lemon.

“Here, taste these ants, they taste like lemon!” Indeed, those ant eggs did taste like lemon.

The other ants in the forest were gigantic.  I’m sad we didn’t see a tapir, which they had a platform for watching at night, but I’m also happy to not run into a jaguar or snake.

We saw lots of beautiful colored butterflies.

We saw lots of beautiful colored butterflies.  I really wish I had managed to catch the other animals as clearly as this.

Right at the end of the hike it started pouring rain.  Expected since we were indeed in a rainforest.  As our canoe wafted into the water we saw some river otters duck away.  Lunch was back in the community house and consisted of traditional dishes, although they didn’t try to make us eat the giant grilled grubs the region is known for.

Maito: fish wrapped in what I assume was banana leaves and grilled over a fire with onions.  It's pretty delicious served with plantains and rice.

Maito: fish and wrapped in what I assume was banana leaves and grilled over a fire. It’s pretty delicious served with plantains and rice, just beware the bones.

After lunch we relaxed by the riverside again.

Our guide ran up again this time with a prehistoric looking fish.

Our guide ran up again this time with a prehistoric looking fish.

We awaited the sight of a pink dolphin for a while but had no luck.  I had better luck spotting dolphins in Cambodia on the river.

Miguel was introduced to us as a dolphin expert but they seemed to be scaring the poor things away more that day.

Miguel was introduced to us as a dolphin expert but they seemed to be scaring the poor things away more that day.

Sadly I didn't get any very good photos and these look more like Loch Ness monster sighting than dolphins.

Sadly I didn’t get any very good photos and these look more like Loch Ness monster sighting than dolphins.

After a while we gave up as we’d seen enough brief glimpses of dolphins backs and headed back.

There was a piranha just hanging out in our canoe back.  I'm not really sure why, but hey, a piranha in the Amazon!

There was a piranha just hanging out in our canoe back. I’m not really sure why, but hey, a piranha in the Amazon!  Look at his sharp pointy teeth.

When we got back into town we spotted this pet parrot in a home and it was the only clear shot I got of a bird all day.  He giggled at us.

When we got back into town we spotted this pet parrot in a home and it was the only clear shot I got of a bird all day.  Locals tell us his name is Pepito.

Locals tell us his name is Pepito.

The trip was made a tad short as we rushed back to cities for New Years.  Our guides later recommended that they could show us way more animals and their cultural traditions if we had two to three days instead of one.  The next morning we stumbled onto the dock at 5 AM just to wait some Ecuadorian time for the boat to finally arrive and whisk us back up the river, stopping to let on and off the jungle citizens who used it as their local bus.

I was more alert on my way back and spotted traces of the oil industry destroying the forest.

I was more alert on my way back and spotted traces of the oil industry destroying the forest.

It was a shorter trip than I would’ve liked but that’s how timing works out.  What a beautiful oasis out in the far eastern side of Ecuador.  All that nonsense that most sources spout about it being impossible to do it independently are bullocks.  Bring lots of mosquito repellent and patience and it’ll be about a third of the price of those silly tours.

Contact info for guides in Nuevo Rocafuerte:

Canton Aguarico
Manuel (Spanish speaking only)
Telephone: 062382226 or 0993104290
Just ask around, some locals saw us wandering around and said “Manuel’s house is that way!”

Well ok, I didn’t manage to foil the robbers for Christmas, but I am spending it alone in adventure sport town Banos, Ecuador.  Originally planned for post-coast and maybe an Amazon visit, I ended up heading here early on my retreat from the coast and with some miscommunication in Quito with my Couch Surfing friend Carlos.  No matter, that just means for Christmas I’m treating myself to some adventure sports.

A beautiful view overlooking the volcanoes and nearby towns.

A beautiful view overlooking the volcanoes and nearby towns.

First up, river rafting.  Although I can’t swim I love water sports and this time around that meant hitting the rapids.  It was fun to careen through dipping waves and holes in the water.  Granted it wasn’t exactly the most hardcore thing as there were two 5 year old kids behind me.  Also I got shifted from English speaking boat to French speaking boat as the odd man, but it was still a good time.  The scenery along the river was stunning.  As another patron mentioned, that would’ve been one awesome time to have a go-cam.

The recently activated volcano near Banos.

The recently activated volcano near Banos.  That’s lava generated smoke coming out the top.

While I certainly haven’t been eating poorly in the last month, I still decided to treat myself to a few Christmas dinners of varied food being in a gringo filled tourist town.  A steak dinner that was probably just objectively ok but tasted like the best thing ever because I haven’t had a good slab of beef steak in who knows how long.  A dinner of objectively good pulled pork sandwich and fries and even microbrewed craft beers.  On Christmas day I tried Swiss raclette, because melty cheese is certainly something i’ve missed.  Although I managed to find the Ecuadorian specialties of cuy (guinea pig) and encocado (coconut stew) to try as well.

A specialty of the town is a hand pulled sugar cane candy that they do with flourish to try to lure in people to buy some.  It's a weird hard taffy warm and I think an even worse hard candy cold.

A specialty of the town is a hand pulled sugar cane candy that they do with flourish to try to lure in people to buy some. It’s a weird hard taffy warm and I think an even worse hard candy cold.

On Christmas day i decided to treat myself well.  My family pitched in and purchased some of my splurges that I can’t do on a normal day.  While it’s not Thailand, I started with a massage in the morning.  Well, it certainly ain’t Thailand, it cost four times as much and was only ok.

Ecuador is a poor country.  It doesn't matter where you are though, you'll see a satellite dish.

Ecuador is a poor country. It doesn’t matter where you are though, you’ll see a satellite dish.

Later on I went for the more exciting activity, paragliding.  The guide’s American girlfriend looked at me and went, “This is what you are doing for Christmas?!” with an incredulous look.  Granted, she was with her boyfriend’s family, but I reminded her technically it was what she was doing for Christmas too.  Luckily she was really nice and took some photos of me in the air.

Sure, you can't see me, but that's me up there gliding over the hills.

Sure, you can’t see me, but that’s me up there gliding over the hills.

It was an amazing feeling to be up in the air like that.  You just take a few steps forward, back, take a running start, and are carried straight off the slope of a hill.  As a twelve year old, my parents bought me my first video game system, a Nintendo 64.  One of the first games I managed to play was Pilotwings 64, a rather boring game that was just showing off the power of 3-D.  I still recall you were supposed to catch thermal drafts, and I didn’t realize that was a thing you did.  They aren’t really visible in real life like they are in the game, but my do they lift you fast!

I can't even explain how beautiful the day was as we waited hours for the wind to be just right to soar.

I can’t even explain how beautiful the day was as we waited hours for the wind to be just right to soar.

The winds were strong that day, too strong to be safe.  GeoTours had given me bad info and told me not to bring anything so I was sans books.  Not a bad way to be though as I gazed upon the first active volcano I’d ever seen constantly rumbling, roaring and belching smoke. Finally near the end of the day we managed to get up.  Only we went, as the other people who brought parachutes thought it too dangerous and instead monitored the wind for us.  Unfortunately, I can get nauseous doing most activities and being this high up was no exception and I got altitude sickness from the sudden rise.  I held on though and the rather brisk air whisked past me as we floated around.  Suddenly though, the rather strong wind gave out and we made an emergency landing.  For me, that meant instead of walking down, I landed ass sliding onto the hill.

The day continued to be stunning even as we ended a wonderful Christmas day of adventure.

The day continued to be stunning even as we ended a wonderful Christmas day of adventure.  Unfortunately those beautiful sunset clouds are the same ones keeping me from seeing bright lava at night.

This is my first Christmas away from Los Angeles and I tried to make the best of it.  Not your standard Christmas but certainly a fun one.  Good thing I got Christmas presents so that I could greatly enjoy such an adventurous town.