ECUADOR: Huaquillas, Cuenca, Quito; GALAPAGOS; Quito, El Coca, Rio Napo, Panacocha: AMAZONIA

April/May 2004


The first week of our eight-month trip to South America was not a bed of roses. Despite lots of travel experience, we made many "rookie" mistakes.

In April 2004 we flew from San Francisco to Lima, Peru. Our free mileage air tickets didn't go directly to Ecuador, so we had to fly south to Peru and double-back. We hoped to fly from Lima (Peru) to Ecuador the next day, but no seats were available. So we had to enter through the back door - by flying from Lima to Tumbes, Peru, and walking across the border into Huaquillas, Ecuador. ROOKIE MISTAKE #1: We tried to reserve an international flight one day in advance.

After we arrived in Tumbes, Lou negotiated a $4 taxi fare through Peruvian immigration to the Ecuadorian border. After immigration, the driver detoured down a rutted road and across a field to avoid paying a road toll - stopping at a makeshift rope barrier so we could pay some shady-looking characters an "informal" toll of about 50 cents. He then swerved the taxi into an outdoor food market and threaded his way through its narrow lanes and dropped us off at the riverfront stairs on the Peruvian side of the river. Here, he and a security guard (who we later realized was in on the scam) tried to extort an extra $8, but we hoisted on our four backpacks - each of us wearing one in front and one in back - and hurried through the market and up to the bridge. There we were accosted by two sleazy teenagers who wanted to guide us to the Huaquillas bus station. We couldn't shake them off with a few ˇVayases! (go away), so when we reached the bus "station" (a small, shabby room) we gave them five soles ($1.25) and got an obscene gesture in return. They wanted more money for "guiding" us three blocks. ROOKIE MISTAKE #2: We paid for services we didn't ask for or want.

It was hot and humid in Huaquillas, a dirty, crowded little border town on the Ecuadorian side where we were the only gringos. We bought tickets for the six-hour trip to Cuenca  ($6 apiece), carefully guarded our backpacks and watched a fistfight turn into a brawl in the street outside. Three hours later, we boarded the bus for Cuenca. The bus stopped at Ecuadorian immigration five minutes down the road, where the officials refused to allow Joan entry into Ecuador because the Peruvian immigration office had not exit-stamped her passport! We had to unload our packs from the bus, catch an Ecuadorian taxi back to the border, walk over the bridge, catch a Peruvian taxi to Peruvian immigration and get the passport actually stamped. ROOKIE MISTAKE #3: We didn't make sure our official documents were correctly prepared.


(You won't believe this part. Only a month later, we were exiting Peru again - this time on our way to a jungle lodge on the Amazon. When we arrived at Brazilian immigration, the official opened our passports to find - guess what? No Peruvian exit stamps! ARRRGGGH! Fortunately, he didn't demand we return to Peru. Instead, he kindly recommended a local hotel and even phoned a taxi for us! That was at the entry to Brazil.)


But now we're reentering Ecuador. Once again we caught a taxi to the border and walked over the bridge (carrying a total of 88 pounds of gear in 88-degree weather.) Returning to the bus station, we paid another $12 and waited three more hours for the 7 p.m. bus. Usually we try to avoid night buses in remote areas. Bus hijackings can be a problem, plus luggage more easily can "go astray." Well, we decided to break that rule rather than spend the night in the lovely metropolis of Huaquillas! Finally we were on our way. The bus headed into the dark countryside past miles and miles of banana plantations, then up into the mountains on rutted dirt roads past pot-holes and huge mudslides. We could only hope the driver was wide awake and sober. ROOKIE MISTAKE #4:  We took a long-distance night bus in a developing country.


We arrived in the dark city in a rainstorm at 12:30 a.m., rang the bell of Hostal El Monasterio and hoped our room, reserved by phone from Huaquillas, would still be available. We were buzzed in and - passing right by the elevator in the tiny downstairs lobby without noticing it - wearily carried our 45-pound backpacks up six flights of stairs, huffing and puffing in the 8,500-foot elevation. ROOKIE MISTAKE #5: We didn't pay attention to our surroundings.

Food poisoning hit Lou the next day. Perhaps it was that weird green yogurt sauce he ate in a Lima restaurant. He called it "Ayatualpa's Revenge" after the Inca leader conquered by the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro back in the 16th century. For two nights and a day, Lou lay in bed writhing in delirium. He felt as if the lumpy bed had black-diamond ski slopes in the middle and rocks in the pillows; he lost some of the vision in one eye and his tongue turned black. During the second night, when Lou wasn't sure that he was going to live, his life passed before him. Weird little episodes floated by, such as the time when he was five and Mrs. Laney (the landlady where he lived) gave him a nickel for ice cream, and another time when he innocently called his grandmother a son-of-a-bitch and abruptly ended a card game. (The kids in his fourth grade class used the term all the time with each other, and he merely wanted to congratulate grandma on her great play.)

Then came the healing. Ah, the euphoria of health after being ill! Lou came from the trough of this ride back to the crest of joy in the middle of the second night - when he was awakened by the music of the heavens. Our room overlooked two large cathedrals and a cloistered nunnery. Around 3:30 or 4:00 every morning the nunnery played recorded inspirational music for an hour, followed by another hour of bell chiming. Such a dramatic return to health!

Meanwhile, Joan spent a couple of days eating alone in cafes. She favored one where the guard - who looked a bit like a guerrilla himself - stood casually outside the front door - dangling a large gun in his hand. Around half of the people in Ecuador live in poverty. Desperation often leads to theft, so banks, jewelry stores and many restaurants are guarded by gun-toting security guards. We figured there were about three armed guards per block in the central part of the city. After we got used to this, Cuenca felt quite safe. We even walked home at night - a distance of about seven blocks.

The city itself is a delight. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage City because of its beauty and its historical importance, and we  enjoyed walking its streets to admire the many beautiful red-tile-roofed buildings




While Lou was ill, Joan's main task was to find a good Spanish language school. After checking out several expensive options, she found an excellent school with the unlikely name of Abraham Lincoln Cultural Center. Primarily focused on teaching English to young Ecuadorians, the center also has two very good Spanish instructors and - being non-profit - charges a reasonable $5/hour ($9/hour for the two of us in a private class.) Our maestro, Enrique - a dapper, mustachioed man in his fifties - was one of the best teachers we've known. Although he spoke only a little English, his Spanish explanations were almost always clear, and he had a humorous ability to mime whatever we didn't understand. The first class was a gem. We've never learned so much so quickly or had so much fun in a classroom.

But the second class was - for Lou - a tremendous downer. Joan was learning quickly while he was lagging behind. Joan has invisible antennae sticking so far out that almost before anyone says anything she often can intuit what will be said. In contrast, Lou doesn't have a clue until it's said - and often not even then! Lou was having mucho trouble understanding Enrique's rapido instructions in Spanish. He was happy that Joan was progressing so quickly, but overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and the fear that he would have to drop out for a slower-paced class. After two hours, Enrique confirmed this by handing out two different exercises - a difficult one for Joan and a simple one for poor Lou. It was humiliating to a lifetime academic. He left the classroom for a little walk while Joan and Enrique worked out a plan to help keep him in the course. Through their generosity and cooperation, and some extra work on his part, Lou did much better the next time and successfully completed the remainder of the classes.


One Saturday, we asked Enrique to teach us somewhere outside of the classroom. He drove us into the beautiful Caja Mountains - along with his teenage daughter and her friend. We went up to 13,000 feet, although the peaks are 2,000 feet higher. It was chilly and damp at this altitude, but the hiking we did through forests and fields of tiny wildflowers made up for the discomfort. The red-barked trees below are about 800 years old, Enrique told us proudly. We didn't have the heart to mention the 2,000-year-old redwoods that live in California.





For two weeks, we lived with an Ecuadorian family in Cuenca, a home-stay arranged by our language school. The cost was $20 a day for the two of us and included our own room and bath, plus three meals a day and weekly laundry. We ate with the middle-class family in their large kitchen, doing our best to speak Spanish with the father, mother and two 20-something children. As elsewhere in the Andes, the diet in Ecuador is based heavily on starch. The best part of Andean cuisine is invariably the soup. A typical dinner at the Lopez home included potatoes, rice, mote (hominy), beans and a bit of meat or a fried egg. A bowl of popcorn was passed to garnish the corn and potato soup! One day we adventurously went to a restaurant to eat the regional specialty - roast cuy (guinea pig) - which was large enough to share and had deep brown, crispy skin. Delicious. Well, we eat rabbits, don't we? (The woman below is spit-roasting cuy between some large fowls.)

Although our Spanish improved during these two weeks, it remained wobbly. On occasion we actually spoke coherently in complete, well-structured sentences, but many times our words were halting or incorrect - such as the time Lou proudly announced  "Pueblo hablar espanol" instead of "Puedo hablar espanol." Ironically, what he'd meant to say was "I can speak Spanish." (It takes a village...)

The day before we wanted to leave Cuenca, we tried and failed to get a flight to Quito. (See Rookie Mistake #1) So we took another damn night bus. (See Rookie Mistake #4) Sigh. Will we EVER learn how to travel??

While in Ecuador, we flew 600 miles from the coast to take an eight-day cruise through the world-famous islands of the GALAPAGOS



GUIDEBOOKS:  South America Handbook (Footprints); South America on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet)



Airport Pick-up: We began our South America trip in this city, arriving (as most visitors from North America do) at midnight in this sprawling city of eight million. Night arrivals in large cities with dangerous reputations - such as Lima - are a good time to splurge on an airport pick-up. We arranged in advance to be met at the airport by someone from the hotel and were relieved to come out of customs and see our names on a poster in the midst of a shouting, milling crowd.

Hostal Mami Panchita: Located 15 minutes from the airport; we stayed here three times as we traveled back and forth between countries. The hotel is comfortable, clean, secure and reasonable: $30/double with private bath and breakfast. English, Dutch, German and Spanish are spoken, and there's a travel agency on the premises.   www.mamipanchita.com


Casa Helbling: Veintimilla 531 y 6 de Diciembre - $26/double with bath; less without bath. Cooking facilities; luggage storage; English spoken. Just outside “tourist ghetto” of Mariscal Sucre. (593) (02) 222-6013   www.casahelbling.de

Casa Cultura: Calle Robles y Reina Victora. A more up-scale hotel than nearby Casa Helbling, with charming rooms, garden and a restaurant with good coffee & homemade bread.  www.cafecultura.com 

South American Explorers (SAE): Friendly non-profit organization. English spoken, great for useful travel information, especially on Andes countries. Maintains binders of traveler's recommendations and complaints on tours, hotels, etc. Join on-line or at one of the three clubhouses in Quito, Lima and Cusco. Dues: $50 single; $80 couple per year.  www.saexplorers.org/

CUENCA:  Abraham Lincoln Cultural Center, Borrero 5-18   Spanish lessons $5/hour per person; $9/hour per couple; Enrique was our wonderful Spanish teacher here.  07-823-898




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net