Volunteering in Ecuador (And Other Travel Adventures)

Well, I’ve finally made it home after my month long excursion abroad and as promised, I’m updating my blog to share my stories and photos with you all! Enjoy!

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June 13-23 (The Coast)
My main reason for traveling to Ecuador was to participate in a global service project with Circle K International, where nine other people and myself visited several schools in the province of Manabi to teach English, paint, and hand out school/dental supplies. Most of the schools we went to were located in Manta–a mid-sized coastal city famous for its large tuna industry, making it one of Ecuador’s most important economic centers.

It takes only 30 minutes to fly from Quito to Manta, but the contrast in the landscape between the two cities is dramatic. In this region of Ecuador, the climate is warm (not hot) and dry. We were there during their winter, so it was the cooler time of year with temps hanging around the 70s during the day with slight humidity–much different from the sweltering heat that I was expecting. Overall, it was comfortable enough to walk around in a t-shirt and shorts both day and night.

Streets of Manta

Downtown

The landscape in this part of Ecuador is dry and arid, with typical desert shrubs and plants, such as cacti. Also dotting the landscape are ceibo trees, which almost look as if someone dug them up and replanted them upside with roots exposed.

Group photo at a community dining hall that we painted.

We taught English and other subjects to various schools in the area. This classroom was located outside.

Me and some of the local kids. They loved getting their pictures taken!

I even got them to do a jumping picture with me! 😀

We also visited a school in Montecristi, which is a few miles further inland from Manta and was also the location of our homestay. Montecristi is a nice little town with a lot of history and attractions that are often overlooked by most people who visit Ecuador. The people there are super friendly and they love Americans!

A few people from our group stayed in Montecristi one day to paint a mural for a school while the rest went to teach. It's not complete in this picture, but when it was it added a lot of color and character to what was once a pretty dull street corner!

This was the backyard of the house we stayed in. It was awesome, full of different plants that grow in the area. That's a papaya tree there on the right. Papaya is kind of like blackberry bushes in Washington, in the fact that it grows EVERYWHERE around here.

This was one of the views of Cerro de Montecristi (Montecristi Hill) from the terrace on top of the house.

Random herd of goats that wandered around the neighborhood every day.

There were a lot of stray dogs wandering the streets and this was one of two that befriended us. We called her Itchy because she was always scratching herself. She was always there at the gate to greet us 🙂

Goofing around with some of the neighborhood kids 🙂

Streets of Montecristi...it was actually a fairly clean city (compared to some other locations we visited) and I would say it was pretty tourist friendly.

This is the main square at the city center, with the big Catholic church at the far end of the plaza. It's a great place to go people watching.

Inside of the church...it was a fairly decent size with lots of statues and old paintings decorating the interior.

Overlooking the main plaza from the church.

Montecristi from the scenic viewpoint at the nearby museum.

Some of the lovely ladies in our group aboard a train the museum had on display. You can't see it in this picture, but the passenger car has railing on the roof for those who are brave enough to go "train surfing" by riding up top. Something I'd like to do next time I visit!

Me at Elroy Alfaro's tomb. He is one of the most famous historical figures in Ecuador, serving as a former president who reunited the country at a time of civil unrest.

Inca Kola! One of my new favourite drinks. It's like liquid bubblegum...I'm normally not a big fan of bubblegum flavored foods/drinks but this was so good!

A few of the Kiwanians threw a big party in honor of their granddaughter's baptism. I learned how to salsa dance and there was lots of free food. Fun times!

During our stay on the coast, we also went to the beach during one of our free days. Of course, it was the rainiest and coldest day of the trip :P. Regardless, it was nice getting to see a bit of the countryside. We had a great lunch dining on some fresh seafood in Puerto Lopez and some of us even went swimming in the Pacific despite the wind and rain. Unfortunately, one of the girls got a nasty sting from a Portuguese Man-of-War (a kind of jellyfish) and that kind of ended the day at the beach. Still, it was nice getting out of the city for the day and Nikisa (the girl who got stung) recovered from the sting after a few hours.

Albatross and Frigate Birds

The "tunnel of trees" we went through on the way to Puerto Lopez.

Lunch in Puerto Lopez

La Playa (the Beach!)

Fishing boats out the harbor...the reason why all the seafood here is so fresh!

I love Ecuador!

On our last day in Montecristi, we all thanked the Kiwanians for hosting us and said our goodbyes. All of us brought some gifts for them that were related to the Pacific Northwest (i.e. smoked salmon & coffee). They’re a wonderful group of people and our time in Manta definitely wouldn’t have been as awesome as it was without them.

We like to take jumping pictures...this was during our last night with the Kiwanians in Manta/Montecristi.

CKI group photo with the Kiwanians of Manta & Montecristi

June 23-27 (Quito & The Sierra)
The following morning, a few of the Kiwanians took us to the transit station in Manta where we caught a bus to Quito, the capital and second largest city in Ecuador.

On the bus, enjoying the views of the Ecuadorean countryside.

The typical scenery we saw along the way.

The culture in Ecuador is much slower and more relaxed than it is in the U.S., which was pretty evident when travelling within the country. The bus ride was long and slow, taking about 10 hours to complete the 200 mile trip. Thankfully, I was occupied for most of the trip with my eyes glued to the window taking in the scenery. Plus it was only $10 for a nice charter bus–can’t complain about that! Shortly after we left the desert-like landscape of Manta, we entered a land that was much more lush and green. The road we took gradually meandered its way up into the jungle-covered foothills, past numerous rural villages and towns. As it got dark, the highway became steeper as it went up the steep slopes of the Andes. We all arrived in the city late in the evening and met up with some of the Kiwanians of Quito who took us all to their house to spend the night.

The following morning we all woke up bright and early to get ready for the day’s activities. All of us caught one of the city buses and headed north to El Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the Earth…aka the Equator). It was a beautiful sunny day and along the way we admired the mountains and volcanoes that surround the city. Quito is located in the middle of the Andes mountains, nestled on the slopes of an active volcano. Settled nearly smack on the equator and at over 9,000 feet in elevation (making it the second highest capital city in the world following La Paz, Bolivia), the climate here is warm during the day with intense sunshine and cold at night. The city also gets it’s fair share of rainfall during certain times of the year and the surrounding hills are covered in green pastures…in a way, it’s springtime year-around. Anyway, our bus eventually stops outside of a complex and in the middle of it stands a big monument with a globe tilted on it’s side on top–we’ve made it to the equator! The monument is located in a big complex full of museums and other attractions, but we just spent our time there straddling the equator and taking photos.

Straddling the equator! Another item crossed off the bucket list 🙂

This monument is actually not quite on the equator. The French estimated this location to be on the equator back in the day before they had GPS. Using a GPS, we determined the real equator to be a few hundred feet north of here, which we crossed later in the day.

After exploring the equator, our group took a short tour up the road (in the Northern Hemisphere) to the Pululahua crater. At the museum, you can hire a guide and a van for just $2! Before coming to Quito, I had researched a few places to visit and had never heard of this place…but it was very impressive and I’m glad we took the time to go up there. A must do for anyone visiting the equator. The caldera is massive, stretching 5 km (3.1 miles) across and there is a small village on the floor of the the crater.

Pululahua Crater is a dormant volcano located just north of Quito. The lava dome can be seen rising above the crater floor.

Group photo from the crater rim. We were accompanied by two of the Kiwanians from Quito.

These kids have to hike nearly 2 hours from the crater floor, up to the rim and back down again to get to school in Quito everyday. Remember how some of our grandparents claim to have walked uphill both ways to and from school? Now I know it's possible!

We had lunch back at El Mitad del Mundo after our tour of the crater, then caught a bus heading back to downtown. Quito is actually divided into two sections–the New Town and the Old Town. The Old Town is where all the colonial and historic buildings are located whereas the New Town hosts the business district and architecture is more modern. We were supposed to attend a Kiwanis meeting in the New Town, but it got canceled (we found that out after all the time we took getting there). With a few more hours of daylight remaining, we all decided to check out Telerifiqo–a cable car that ascends up the steep slopes of the Pinchacha Volcano adjacent to the the city. For about $8, we took the 30 minute ride up the mountain high above Quito to 13,000 feet. At this elevation we could all feel the affects of being at high altitude. I could definitely tell that the air was thinner there than at sea level, but it wasn’t hard to breathe really. I did get a bit nauseated and had a headache that night and throughout most of the following day. Anyway, a few of us decided to hike around through the hills and we found a few geocaches along the way!

Avenue of the Volcanoes

High above Quito...this city is huge!

Hiking through the hills.

We were up there just in time to see a glorious sunset. Cotopaxi, claimed to be the world's highest active volcano, can be seen peeking through the clouds in the distance. Notice how the Andes serve as a barrier to the clouds coming in from the ocean.

Telerifiqo!

The views from up there are amazing–on a clear day, it is possible to see several of Ecuador’s glaciated volcanoes. From this vantage point, we were also able to see how massive Quito is, which I think surprised us all. The city stretches for over 20 miles, north and south. We were blessed with some fairly clear skies and witnessed an awesome sunset. As it got dark on the way down, it appeared as if we were descending into a glimmering golden ocean of light as the city lights turned on. It was beautiful.

Once we made it back to solid ground, my friend Alison and I headed over to the Old Town to check in to our hostel before meeting up with the rest of the gang for one last group dinner. I was still feeling a bit light-headed from being exposed to the altitude earlier in the day, but an oreo milkshake seemed to soothe the headache for a little bit :). After saying farewell to half the group (Tea, Nikisa, Erin, Stina, and Ashley), Alison and I joined the peeps from Idaho (Amy, Jeffery, and Cassie) to hang out at their hotel for a little bit before heading back to our hostel to get some sleep.

The next morning I woke up and went upstairs to get some breakfast. The hostel we stayed at was called the Secret Garden, and up on the top floor there is a restaurant with some great views of the Old Town. Here’s a few shots from the terrace and the street level that I took:

View from my table!

Facing south...overlooking part of the Old Town towards the Panecillo (Statue of Mary).

Our hostel...my bed was next to the window there up on the top right.

View of the street from our hostel.

When Alison woke up, we both headed down the street to visit La Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic church in the Western Hemisphere. We explored the church for a while and took a few photos before heading back to the hostel to meet up with the rest of the group from Idaho.

La Basilica del Voto Nacional

The main Sanctuary.

Llama Gargoyles

We found out later that you can actually climb to the top of the two towers...bummer!

Once we got back together with the last remaining half of our CKI group, we all walked out to the Old Town to grab some lunch. The architecture of the buildings in this part of Quito really surprised me–it felt more like Europe than South America! After lunch we hailed a taxi and took a ride up to the top of the Panecillo, which is a big hill towards the southern end of town where a statue of Mary overlooks the city.

Most of the buildings in this part of town have a lot of European influenced architecture.

People from Quito claim that this 134-foot monument is the only winged statue of Mary in the world. A plaque near the base says it represents the "Woman of the Apocalypse" as described in Revelation 12.

La Plaza de San Francisco...looks a lot like Spain!

Another view of La Plaza de San Francisco

This old Jesuit church is claimed to be the most beautiful in the Americas, with gold plated walls. We didn't go inside since there was an entrance fee...kind of silly to charge people since they obviously had the money to decorate the inside with gold 😛

Heading back to the hostel.

Once we arrived back at the Secret Garden, we said farewell to the rest of the group as they headed off to the airport. Alison and I planned to catch a bus to Otavalo, a city two hours north of Quito, the following morning so we just chilled at the hostel for the rest of the day and relaxed. The Secret Garden was a pretty decent place with lots of character and interesting people to meet and talk to. I met a British woman from Manchester who had been travelling the world for over a year. There was also Canadian who had been riding his road bike for the past 10 months. His goal was to ride from Calgary all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America. What a champ! I didn’t meet any Aussies or Kiwis though, unfortunately :/.

A spectacular sunset from the terrace atop the Secret Garden.

The next day was a Saturday (June 26th). Alison and I woke up early (yet again) to catch a city bus to the main bus terminal, where we would transfer to another bus that would take us to Otavalo. It turns out we got on the wrong bus, which eventually took us back to where we got on. Instead of waiting for another bus, we took a cab to the bus station and caught the next bus leaving for Ecuador’s largest marketplace.

Otavalo is famous for it’s national marketplace and indigenous population. Here, people (especially the women) still dress in traditional attire. On Saturdays, pretty much the entire city shuts down as the streets are full of vendors selling everything from live animals, produce, artisan crafts like wool hats and sweaters, jewelry, kitchen products, souvenirs, and many other items. The market was actually a bit overwhelming and made Pike’s Place look like a 7-11. Things were a tad bit expensive compared to other markets we had visited in Ecuador so I didn’t buy anything, other than a big loaf of bread for lunch at one of the local bakeries (and it was one of the best loafs of bread I ever had…just for $1!). Alison got a few items though and we explored the market for about two hours.

A lot of the locals here dress in traditional attire.

The streets, plazas, and alleyways of Otavalo are transformed into this huge market every Saturday.

Afterwards, we walked north out of town along an old railroad grade for about 45 minutes toward Peguche Falls. The locals were kind and pointed out the way for us as we went. The falls flow from Lago San Pablo (a lake east of Otavalo) and flows through a lush eucalyptus forest. The park has several paths that took us to different vantage points around the falls, offering some great views and photo opportunities!

Path through the eucalyptus forest.

Peguche Falls...pretty spectacular!

At the top of the falls, the water runs through a cave. I went in to explore it--it goes back about 200 feet or so and there is another set of falls that comes in from the lake.

Drying off after wading through the river, enjoying the view.

After the falls we walked back to Otavalo (frolicking through fields along the way!) to catch our bus back to Quito. When we got back to the hostel, we went to grab dinner at a nice pizzeria down the street–my last meal in Ecuador. We pretty much just chilled around the hostel and talked to Amanda (the British woman I mentioned earlier) for a while before going to bed. The next morning I said farewell to Alison (who stayed in Quito for an extra day) and headed off to the airport to catch my flight to Peru, thus ending my visit to Ecuador.

Notes on Ecuador:
Overall, I LOVED Ecuador and would totally come back again. I kind of wish I stayed a little longer because there is so much to do and see here…but I guess that just gives me more reasons to return :). Some things I’d like to do if I ever make it back there again:

  • Cotopaxi…either take a tour and go mountain biking on the slopes of one of the world’s highest volcanoes or make the trek up to the summit.
  • Cuenca, Baños, & Mindo…three places that I heard were worth visiting.
  • Playa de Los Frailes…said to be the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. It’s located in a national park that is home to some of the wildlife that can be found on the Galapagos Islands. We drove by the park entrance the day we went to the beach, but never got a chance to see it.
  • Train surfing in Riobamba…I mentioned before that people are allowed to sit on the roofs of the passenger cars while riding the trains in Ecuador. Sounds like fun!
  • Lago Cuicocha…the Crater Lake of Ecuador, west of Otavalo. We thought about going there while we were at the market, but we weren’t sure if we had enough time to go.
  • The Amazon…Ecuador is divided into three parts–the coast, the sierra, and the Oriente which is pretty flat and is where the real jungle is. We never made it far enough east to the rain forest on this visit, but I would love to go there next time.

I also wrote down a bunch of notes for reference and for anyone who plans on visiting Ecuador in the future:

  • Ecuadoreans are very friendly and are easy to talk to if you are just learning Spanish. From my own observations, I thought they were more articulate and didn’t speak as rapidly as people in other Spanish-speaking countries I’ve been to.
  • No one really says “adios” for “good-bye”. They all say “ciao”.
  • Public bathrooms were seemingly hard to find, even in Quito. Also, buy or bring some toilet paper because many bathrooms don’t have any. You usually have to pay a small fee (I paid $0.10 for one) if the bathrooms are stocked with some.
  • Which reminds me of the Ecuadorean TP rule (which I didn’t know about until we almost left Manta). The plumbing in pretty much all South American countries can’t handle flushed TP. All bathrooms have a small trash bin for disposal–use it!
  • Ecuador “dollarized” their currency to the USD in 1999, so everyone uses American money (they do mint their own coins, however). Remember those golden $1 Sacajawea coins that were once popular in the U.S.? It looks like they all went to Ecuador–everyone uses them.
  • You can buy things here much cheaper than in the U.S. For example, a big plate of food (rice, beans, vegetables, banana chips, and meat/fish) normally costs around $3 to $4.
  • Carry lots of small bills and change. This is an important thing to remember, because it’s hard finding places that can break big bills. Some places we went to couldn’t/wouldn’t break even a $5 bill. So having small denominations is good to have.
  • Knowing basic Spanish is essential in all of South America since not many people know English. It’s always respectful to at least make some attempts at speaking the local language. The people really appreciate it and are happy to hear when you simply try.
  • Drink lots of water when in the Sierra. It makes acclimatizing easier since your body dehydrates faster at altitude.
  • Transportation in Quito…taking the bus/trolley is much cheaper than taxis and they can pretty much get you anywhere in town (if you can figure out which bus goes where). It’s fairly safe to ride during the day, we had no problems. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your bags.
  • Take the time to look up at the sky at night if it’s clear! The stars in the Southern Hemisphere are much more vivid and brilliant than up north since there’s less pollution down there (and I did see the southern cross!).

That’s pretty much it for my trip to Ecuador. If you want to see more photos, check them out on Facebook. Stay tuned for my next blog on my travels in Peru!

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