Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gringo Retirement Mansions in Vilcabamba

On my hike into town today, I realized the terracotta farmhouses I was describing weren't farmhouses, but enormous gringo retirement mansions. Vilcabamba is the Boca Raton of Ecuador. As I ate a delicious kale salad from Cafe Juice, I noticed I was surrounded only by white people over 60. This is partly because Vilcabamba is rumored to be one of the healthiest places on the planet and partly because property is incomprehensibly inexpensive here. I have seen postings for amazing properties that rest on the mountainside for less than 25,000. And the cost of living is near nothing as well. A large goji berry and acai smoothie, a huge bowl of vegetarian brown rice soup, an overflowing plate of salad, and a homemade nutella filled croissant cost all of $7. And that was at the expensive restaurant. Most provide a three course lunch for $2.50, but I was in the mood for fruits and vegetables.

We meant to get on a night bus to Peru, but when we arrived at the bus station in Loja, both buses for the night were already sold out. The downside is that this will take off a day in Trujillo. The upside is that we don't have to sleep on a bus and will go through border control at 4am.

We quickly consulted the Lonely Planet at the bus station and decided that Hotel Metropolitan sounded like the best option. I suppose it was probably the best, but that really doesn't say much. We had a room with four cots clad in ruffly pink comforters from the 70s that aren't exactly comforters because they are barely thicker than a sheet. There are retro plastic cubes for windows, the ones you might see in retro basement bars. Not to mention the beds were boards. It was the second worst hostel I have stayed in on this trip, second only to Desert Nights. At least it was safe, especially after we pulled the card table in front of the door for good measure.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


In the morning, I walked to breakfast and found the hostel has the most amazing view of Vilcabamba. The restaurant patio looks out into the mountains and over the small village below. The terracotta roofs of farmhouses dot the landscape. Mist hung just above the trees, burning off in patches where the sun broke through. Before even finishing breakfast, I decided to stay an extra day here, even if it meant having to skip Mancora. Really I only had enough time for a day in Mancora, and it is 5 hours out of the way, so despite all of the great things I have heard about Mancora, I just don't think it would be worth it.

Instead of Mancora, Miriam, Stephanie and I will cross the border to Piura, and then Miriam and I will continue on to a town just outside of Trujillo called Huanchaco. We found a great hostel called Casa Amelia, but it was booked, so we will stay at Nylamp Hostel on the beach for a couple nights before finally reaching Lima.

We spent the entire day on the hostel grounds, swimming in the pool, going to the spa for a facial and massage packet (because it only cost $16!!) and eating enormous salads at the restaurant. I can understand why so many people live to be over 100 years old here. I feel absolutely no stress.

Finished reading The Lowlands and started When I Was Puerto Rican.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ready to Leave?

This trip is winding down, and I am still deciding if it is coming too quick or if I am ready to be back in the US. The trip has been wonderful. It was an eye opening experience, and I have seen and experienced more than I could have imagined. Still, there's a lot about this trip that seems very self-indulgent. Spending my days shopping, eating and getting massages isn't so much making a positive impact on the world. I am glad, though, that there is the very tangible takeaway of being able to hold my own (most of the time) in basic Spanish conversations. I look forward to taking classes when back in the US.

Today was pretty much a travel day. The only real accomplishment was going back to the panama hat museum and buying a hat. Other than that, Miriam and I had a delicious salad at Bananas and met a van to take us to Vilcabamba, which was surprisingly far, but as always, it was a beautiful ride... when there was visibility that is. At one point I looked up from my iPad and realized I could see nothing but gray out of any of the windows. I was very grateful to be in a van as opposed to a bus this time around.

By the time we reached Vilcabamba, it was already dark, but our hostel (really I should say resort, but it costs as much as a hostel) is amazing with an enormous pool, restaurant, and on-site spa. The name of the hostel is Izhcayluma. For tourists, Ecuador is certainly a country for outdoor adventures and relaxation.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Getting a Haircut in Cuenca

I started off the day with a beautiful walk down by the river. I meant to go to a museum nearby, but it was shut down for renovations. Without the museum on my agenda, I decided, finally, to get a haircut. I decided to go to the $10 vs. the $7 place just because I thought maybe it would be better since it cost $3 more... I explained in Spanglish that I wanted it "al mismo de ahora, pero menos un poco porque mi cabello esta muy seco" (which I think more or less means "the same as now, but a little bit shorter because my hair is really dry"). I think I said "un poco" about twenty times. I held my breath as she took the first snip, well, really the whole time, but it turned out fine. She even spent twenty minutes drying and straightening it. It is the first time my hair has seen a blow dryer since Bolivia...

After the successful haircut, I bought myself a celebratory smoothie and headed back to the hostel to download a lot of TV episodes of Scandal and Parenthood so I have something to do during the 30 hours of bus rides and 12 hours on a plane that I face in the next week.

Speaking of planes, I went to the Taca Airlines office today to see how much it would cost to push my flight to November 8th instead of the 6th. It would mean getting to spend a couple extra days on the beach in Mancora... But the woman told me it would be $200, plus taxes. Oh well! Looks like I will be going to the beach in California instead!

Miriam (jungle roommate) arrived tonight from her Galapagos trip. I am so glad the timing worked out for us to meet up again because she is one of the happiest people I have ever met. After she got here, we headed to the Colombian restaurant nearby for dinner.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Where Lonely Planet Went Wrong

According to Lonely Planet, there are three huge markets just an hour outside of Cuenca (one for textiles, one for jewelry, and one for hats). Stephanie and I headed by bus to the textile market, which we found (after an hour of searching) was actually just a small co-op store with barely any goods. We left and set off for the jewelry market, but that was a failed attempt as well. It was actually just a section of stores that all sold plastic looking gold and silver jewelry, including very bad Tory Burch and Channel knock-offs. At this point, we gave up on the third market and headed back to the city for lunch.

Since it is Sunday, and Cuenca is a very religious city, absolutely nothing was open all day. For dinner, my roommate and I tried to find an open restaurant, and we searched for thirty minutes in the pouring rain, sprinting from doorway to doorway, but only found (surprise, again) Taj Majal to be open. At this point even I am a bit sick of Indian food. I am ready to leave Cuenca, but Stephanie has Spanish classes until Tuesday.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cajas National Park

Today was spent at Cajas National Park. In the morning, I met up with Stephanie, a girl from France, and our new Ecuadorian friend. The Ecuadorian guy, whose name is too difficult to spell, has a car here, and drove us to the park and took us on a hikes at a couple of the many lakes. This is just one example of just how incredibly welcoming and friendly the people are here. So many people here go out of their way to show you their city because they have so much pride in their country. The guy kept saying that he wanted to show us everything because he wanted us to remember the beauty of Ecuador. And man is Ecuador beautiful. It rivals Switzerland. The mountains are every conceivable shade of green. Everywhere you look, you see cows or horses, or sometimes llamas grazing in the grass. Everything looks like a postcard. The other amazing thing about Ecuador is that since the country is so small, you can drive 4 hours in one direction and be at the beach, 4 hours in another direction and be in the rainforest, or a couple hours in another direction and you are in the mountains or by a volcano.

After the park, we took our kind friend out to dinner at (surprise) Taj Majal. We tried to go to somewhere different, but nearly everything was closed because of a 10k race happening in the evening. After dinner, we watched a bit of the race (we were the only people cheering) before heading back to the hostel.

Day 2 in Cuenca

First things first, I changed hostels. Now I am at Yakumama, which has a lot more going on than the last hostel, plus I am a lot closer to the city center. My roommates are nice, too. One guy is headed to Lima on the same schedule, so I am going to include him in my border crossing.

In my morning walk around the city, I contemplated getting a $10 haircut (people in Cuenca have nicer hair than anywhere I have been in South America so far), got the most delicious fruit drink of my life at Live Organico, and stopped to get pizza and have a long, Spanglish conversation with the pizza guy who spent 10 years in NJ of all places, and wanted to practice his English.

In the afternoon, I visited the Panama Hat Museum, where they show you how hats are made. I tried on lots of beautiful hats that grandpa would love. Later, I walked around the local fruit, meat, and vegetable market, where I bought tons of fruit for two dollars. At the market, there was a section of woman sitting with herbs and branches. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but I saw the woman were literally beating small children with the herbs... In the face, across the back. I can only guess it has some medical or spiritual significance. It was crazy.

After a delicious dinner at Taj Mahal, I bumped into Stephanie and her friend, and we all went to a cafe to practice Spanish for a couple hours.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cuenca, Ecuador

Anticipating the usual food vendors on the 7am bus to Cuenca, I hadn't bothered to stop at a store and pick up breakfast for the ride. Unfortunately, and this is the only context with which I would say this is unfortunate, my bus was direct, and didn't pick up random people carrying bags of oranges or baskets of unidentifiable meat off the side of the highway. So instead, when we stopped in Riobamba (at least I think we were in Riobamba) to change buses, I bought the only familiar food I could find - a package of ritz crackers and a single serving portion of nutella. This doesn't sound like a terribly nutritious breakfast, but it cost 50 cents and the other options were egg soup with a side of unidentifiable yellow drink (the yellow was sort of a yellow green hue, yum) or giant hanging pig.

Other than the food situation, the bus far exceeded my expectations. We arrived an hour early to Riobamba. Then, the guy who worked for the first bus personally led me to the next bus, without even being asked, probably sure I would struggle to figure it out on my own by looking at my confused expression when he rapidly reeled off a set of 50 instructions for how to who knows what. And the bus was super empty! 9 hours and $10 later, I happily arrived in Cuenca.

Cuenca is a beautiful, historic city teeming with churches, museums, cheap jewelry stores, and hair salons. I only walked around briefly, mostly to find dinner, because it started to downpour only minutes after I left the hostel. Atleast it is pretty warm here, so the rain isn't miserable! I am spending the night at Alternative hostel, which is very clean and very pretty, but the street it is on is super loud. I think I will change hostels in the morning.

Finished Gone Girl, started The Lowland.

Ohhhh, I forgot to mention a hilarious mistake I made the other day when expressing my frustration that many streets had the same name, but didn't seem to connect. Una Via street. I later found out what una via means (one way) and was utterly embarrassed. Turns out the streets aren't so tricky after all.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


It turns out my travel tip from yesterday was merely a stroke of luck. When I went back to Luna Runtun this morning to retrieve my shoes, have a swim, and get a pedicure, they told me I would have to buy a package for $100 in order to use the pools. Nah.

So, instead of swimming, I decided to hike down the mountain and take in the views of the volcano and surrounding mountains. It was a 6km hike, but it was beautiful. After, I headed to El Refugio to go on the walk I didn't have time for the other day. The walk wasn't just a walk through the garden, it was meant to be a reflective walk (sin zapatos - without shoes) with many signs along the way featuring meaningful quotes in Spanish that I tried my best to decipher. Even without being able to fully understand the signs, I found the walk to be very relaxing.

For lunch, I headed back to the trusty Casa Hood. I was happy to recognize two other couples that were also there for lunch yesterday. It reassured me that I am not actually that bad at traveling, and it is a totally normal thing to eat all of your meals at the same restuarant. Also, it was delicious.

After lunch, I meant to go swimming at the hot springs, but I got distracted shopping for gifts for people, and didn't make it to the pools until 2:30, and by that time they were filthy. I am not a fan of dirty swimming water, so I took a photo, and instead climbed up to the nearby waterfall.

By the time I got back to the hostel, I was exhausted and needed some downtime. After writing a couple postcards, I made plans with my roommate to head to Stray Dog for draft beer. The draft part is important. I have only found draft beer twice, both times in bars owned by people who were clearly not from Ecuador.

At Stray Dog, I made friends with another girl who is traveling alone (never did find out her name...), and with the bartender from North Carolina (Glen). We decided that after the bar closed at midnight, we would go see the volcano erupt. The taxi driver suggested a lookout that I hadn't been to, but once we got there, we realized we wouldn't be able to see because of the clouds. Determined, we headed to a different lookout. Again, no luck. By this point, however, we really, really wanted to see lava, so the driver took us up the side of the actual volcano, almost off roading, at 2am, and we parked only hundreds of feet from the top of the volcano. We sat on the hood of the taxi, staring at the dark outline of the volcano and waited. Ten minutes later, the donkeys began howling (I kid you not), the ground shook, and out came the lava. I felt like a ten year old at a science fair. After all of that hard work, red filled the sky.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Spa at Luna Runtun

I thought today was going to be a wash when I woke up to rain and cloudy skies, but by noon, the weather cleared up and I headed to lunch at Casa Hood (different from Cafe Hood yesterday). Casa Hood has an assortment of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Thai dishes, so it was perfect for me. I ordered a chai latte (meh), an appetizer of hummus and pita (incredible), and vegetable curry for my main dish (even more incredible). The food was so delicious (and unbelievably inexpensive) that I sat there thinking about how I should stay in Baños another night just so I can eat there again.

That sentiment was confirmed when I reached Luna Runtun, a five star luxury hotel that is perched in the middle of the mountains, overlooking the city of Baños on one side and an erupting volcano on the other. The main highlight of the hotel is the system of four infinity pools that create the illusion that you can swim off into the mountains. A cool traveler trick I learned from Ovi was that if I buy one of the cheaper spa treatments, I would have free access to the pools and facilities for the day. I got a softening treatment done on my hair (avocado, olive oil, and eggs mix) for $20 and spent the rest of the day in the water, amazed that this is real life. I couldn't believe there wasn't anyone else in the pool... I had the whole place to myself. I have seen some extraordinarily beautiful places on this trip, and Luna Runtun is definitely in the top 5.

Watching the volcano erupt was amazing. There weren't clouds, so every fifteen minutes or so, you would see gray smoke billowing from the volcano. It was either too difficult to see in daylight or I was too far away, but I couldn't actually see any lava.

On my walk back to the B&B from the taxi I realized I forgot my hiking boots at the spa. I guess I will just have to go back tomorrow

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dancing in the Mud

La Casa Molino Blanco is in theory a great B&B, especially considering it only costs less than $10 for a private double and it comes with a buffet breakfast and super soft beds. The downside is that the receptionist has a severe personality, and when I asked to switch to a dorm since Liza left tonight, she sent me on a guilt trip that I made the wrong reservation. Luckily she came around and moved my room. She also helped us book private spa services at El Refugio, a spa within walking distance. 

When we got to the spa, we headed into the mud bath room where we covered ourselves with volcanic mud that supposedly has special healing properties. Little did we know, in order to dry the mud, the spa therapists forced us to dance around the room in our bathing suits to zumba, Ice Ice Baby, salsa, and even Gangham Style. It was one of the most ridiculous experiences ever.

After rinsing off layers and layers of mud, we went to the herbal steam boxes. You sit in a wooden box that seems too much like a coffin, with your head sticking out the top. We sat there sweating for 5 minute intervals while the women who worked there fed us digestive tea through straws. After 5 minutes, the women would dump freezing cold water over our heads or we would be forced to sit in small tubs of ice water. We did this 3 times. It was surprisingly relaxing.

We followed up the weird cultural treatments with very normal 90 minute massages (and an exfoliation treatment for Liza). We were meant to have a 30 minute walk around the grounds to finish up the day, but I had bumped into Maxamillion, a guy from Germany who stayed at Community, on the way to the spa and we had made plans to all meet for lunch at 2, but it was already 2:45 by the time we finished our treatments. They said I could go back for the walk tomorrow if I have time.

We met Max for lunch at Cafe Hood, an eclectic restaurant with an even more eclectic menu. I split nachos and had pad thai followed by piña juice.

After lunch, we did a little shopping, then met up with our rainforest group (Brett, Caitlin, and Cameron) to taxi up to the currently erupting volcano. As we pulled up to the lookout, we could see it briefly spewing lava, but soon after, the clouds rolled in and we lost our view. I plan to head back there before leaving Baños.

Tonight was Liza's last night, so I will be traveling alone for a couple days until I meet up with Stephanie and Miriam in Cuenca on Friday. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Off to Banos, Ecuador

This morning we woke up to a fierce rainstorm, and I momentarily weighed the costs and benefits of checking to see if my hiking boots were safe from the storm out on our porch. I decided against it, and when I finally got out of bed, I learned it was the right decision; they were safe.

At 6am, we went fishing for piranhas, and though two people caught them, I was unsuccessful. A little while later, we headed out on the boat in search of monkeys and dolphins. The monkeys were hard to spot at first, but once we found them, we saw tons of them, hundreds of them, actually, jumping through the dense trees. This particular type of monkey travels in large packs. Even though the monkeys were amazing, I was really sad that we didn't spot any river dolphins.

After breakfast, we headed, via canoe and three different buses, to Baños. In total, we traveled about 14 hours, and arrived an hour ahead of schedule. The first bus dropped us off on the side of the highway, saying the Coca bus station was too far away and that buses to Coca would just drive by, which they did. We jumped into a packed bus from Lago Agrio (or somewhere close) to Coca for three dollars. I started irrationally panicking that at one of the many side of the highway bus stops, someone would steal my backpack from underneath the bus, so I got off the bus at one of the stops to bring it back to my seat. In the process, my flip flop lost its strength and I was forced to grab my bag and get back on the bus with only one shoe, the other laying on the side of the road, irreparable. I only noticed, much later in the day, that this not only caused a small scene, but also I had a pretty bloody cut on my foot. I stuck it in the bus station sink for a while, then used my tool kit of medical supplies, including, thankfully, my antibiotic cream, which I slathered on heavily. I am feeling grateful for the tentaneous shot I got right before leaving the US.

The upside to traveling today was that Liza and I were not alone. Three others were also heading to Baños, so we all made the trek together. It is nice to have a bigger group on travel days because you always have someone to watch your luggage when you try to find the right window to approach for bus tickets, or when you have to go to the bathroom, or even when you need to run to the chocolate store to buy Nutella and Twix for the ride.

Miriam, our jungle cabana roommate, is also heading to Mancora, and then on to Chiclayo and Lima around the same time that I am making that trip. This means I will be able to travel with two friends across the border, and that I will have someone to travel with through Northern Peru since Mancora will be Stephanie's last stop. Traveling alone has really never involved traveling by myself.

Random bus observation: people sell the weirdest things on buses. Pinchos de pollo (skewers of chicken), salad, homemade popsicles, peeled oranges in a bucket and coconut juice in plastic bags all made an appearance on the buses today.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Visiting the Shaman

Today was decidedly the more "touristy" day of the jungle experience. We started off the day by visiting a remote jungle village to "help" harvest yuka in order to cook indigenous bread. I am not sure how much I helped. I watched the woman take a machete to the yuka plant, then a couple of guys in our group yanked the roots from the ground. Next, the woman, again with a machete, peeled the yuka and tossed them into her mesh bag. The mesh bag was then carried, in a traditional way, of course, by Miriam (on her head). Next, we went to the "kitchen," a patch of dirt surrounded by benches with a fire pit in one corner and a basin lining the "wall." It felt more like an auditorium than a kitchen. In the kitchen, we, and I participated here, grated the yuka on a handmade cheese grater that was more effective in grating the knuckles of two of the girls than actually grating the yuka. Finally, the woman stuck her hands into the fire (I have no idea how she wasn't burned) and in a round pan, she created a bread-like substance from yuka gratings and some sort of flour powder. The bread tasted unusual, but it was not terrible.

After, we all headed out if the kitchen to shoot blow darts at a small seed positioned on a stick in the ground. I came close, but I am no Katniss. Liza, on the other hand, speared the seed on her second attempt, winning a free beer.

In the afternoon, we headed to a shaman "hospital" where a couple people in our group were "healed" by the shaman, who slashed a poisonous vine across their backs, immediately causing large red welts. The welts were supposed to disappear within a half an hour, but one girl, a doctor from the US, still had the welts the next morning. Needless to say, I opted out of this medical procedure.

The evening was a drastically different experience. We went on a night hike in search of all of the things bad dreams are made of. We started off the hike discovering a tarantula, then proceeded to find a boa constrictor, a small baby snake, lots of grasshoppers, and a baby frog. The craziest thing that happened was that we found a scorpion, which the guide then put on Brett's head, saying it would be a good Facebook photo. He was amazingly calm, and let the scorpion crawl on him for almost a minute.

I couldn't decide if I was scared or excited. I felt like I should be scared, but the guide was so excited whenever he found some crazy insect that I couldn't help but be a little excited. Plus, I felt semi protected in my insect proof pants, scarf, and rain jacket with my hood pulled over my head. In total, two inches of skin was exposed, max. I have never been so sweaty in my
life. Also, I looked like I was in an early Halloween costume - either jungle safari or someone who spends too much money at REI.

Finished The Circle. Started reading Gone Girl.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Rainforest

Some people said it is hard for them to sleep with all of the noises of the forest, but I slept like a log after the restless sleep on the bus.

After breakfast, we headed into the rainforest for a 4 hour hike. Along the way, we ate tree bark that prevents and treats malaria, and sampled a tree sap that helps you if you have stomach problems. The foliage was amazing. We saw a tree called the walking palm tree. The tree literally walks through the forest because of phototropism. We also learned that the roots of the trees here can grow as much as 2 cm per day since the soil is so fertile. Another cool thing we discovered was a matchstick sized parasitic mushroom that uses an insect's body as a host. Also, there were leaves that could be used like paper. If you take a sharp object like a knife, and write on the leaf like you are using a pen, red writing will appear. This happens because the leaf is full of iron from the soil, and when you cut into it, you break the leaf's veins and the iron oxidizes and turns red.

We also searched for and found baby frogs (both harmless and deadly). The tiny, poisonous frog was called the ruby dart frog. Speaking of deadly, we found deadly bullet ants crawling up a tree. It really was poor timing because as the guide started taking about the lethal ants, I was bit by something right through my pants, and I was convinced that I had been bit by a deadly bullet ant and would spike a fever and die at any moment. Luckily, my bite was not deadly, though it did sting for hours. Fortunately, benedryll fixed me right up. I will bring benedryll with me on every hike here from now on. In addition to the deadly ants, we also found lemon ants that apparently taste like lemons. A few of the people in our group licked the ants off of a tree! I did not. There was a hilarious moment when Miriam licked the tree, then another girl went to lick the same spot, and Miriam yelled out, "I've got a bit of a cold!" ... Like that was the biggest concern when licking ants off a tree... The last type of ant that we saw was an ant that people use to stitch wounds. Apparently if you stick the ant on a cut, it will bite you and the bite will close up the wound.

At the end of the hike, we walked through a swamp where the guide was nearly bitten by one of the top 12 deadliest snakes in the world. At first, he blurted out a string of curses and kept saying, "bad luck, unlucky, bad luck." We didn't know what to make of it. Not too long after, he moved back a step, calmed down, and invited us over for a closer look. I got close enough for a picture, but quickly headed out of there.

The hike was amazing. Afterwords, we headed back to the lodge for lunch and a siesta.

It wasn't until 4:30 when we headed back out for a 4 hour boat ride to look for caymans and to watch the sunset and the full moon rise over the lagoon. I wasn't loving searching for caymans with flashlights in the dark. I was really only looking because I didn't want to not see it and have it jump into the boat and kill me. But then, when we finally spotted one, I realized how cool it is to be 2 feet away and see the cayman's eyes glowing red in the dark. It isn't something I would like to do every night, but it ended up being pretty awesome.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Welcome to the Jungle

Last night, we almost didn't make it to the jungle. My friend Liza hadn't paid yet because she just arrived in Quito, so she needed to withdraw money. I took her around to three ATMs, but none of them worked. We figured Ovi would know where to find an ATM, so we headed back to the hostel around 7 to get help. Ovi and Liza spent two hours in New Town trying to find an ATM with money. They were unsuccessful. Next, Liza tried to Western Union the money to Ovi, but since she used her card at so many ATMs, even that wouldn't work. Luckily, Ovi trusted us, and let us get on the bus and go to an ATM once we arrived Lago Agria. The ATM there did have money, so we were able to pay there and continue on to Guacamayo Ecolodge via two buses and one canoe. 

The buses here remind me of go carts. Every time the driver presses the breaks, you hear a loud wooshing sound and can physically feel the brakes going into action. Other than the breaking, the buses we took were pretty comfy, and I was able to sleep on and off for most of the night.

At 5 AM, we were abruptly awakened by the driver telling us to get off the bus. Still in a haze of sleep, I tried to ask him where we were and why we had to get off. All I gleaned from the conversation was that our passports needed to be checked by the police. Groggy, I thought maybe we mistakenly hopped onto the wrong bus, and had some how crossed the border into Columbia. When the policeman handed me back my passport without stamping it, I was relieved to find out we were still in Ecuador, and this was just a random check point. I headed back onto the bus and quickly fell asleep.

After the first eight hour bus ride, we caught a cab with another tourist headed to the same destination. Miriam split the taxi fare with us and quickly became our new friend. We all grabbed breakfast at our hotel meeting point, then caught a second, two and a half hour, bus ride to the edge of a river, where we caught a canoe. At that location, I bumped into many of my friends from Community that had gone to the jungle this past week. It was nice to get a chance to chat with them about their trip. I also found out my friend Stephanie from NY is also staying at Guacamayo. Small world.

The canoe ride was amazing. We spotted three different species of monkeys, various birds, and enormous, fluorescent blue butterflies.

After a quick nap under the mosquito netting in my cabana, we took another canoe ride, this time to a lagoon where we hopped out of the boat and into the warm water for a swim. From the water, we watched the sun set and listened to howling monkeys. I couldn't believe I was swimming in the middle of the rainforest. On the ride back, we saw a cayman pop his head out of the water and spotted a sloth high up in the trees.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Off to the Rainforest


I woke up with the sun this morning, and went on a short photo tour of the grounds. Around 9, I went on the hike I missed yesterday because of the rain. Since everyone else hiked yesterday, I was the only one on the hike besides the guide. He was from Argentina, and was very patient with me when I asked him if I could practice my Spanish during the tour. Along the way, I took photos as he pointed out the different types of plants native to this area. We made it to the waterfall after jumping rocks in the stream and literally hanging from branches to climb down the muddy trails. After making it safely back to the lodge, the guide asked if I wanted to ride the horse for a bit. I did! I went horseback riding around the lodge for a while while the guide took the opportunity to have a photo shoot of me and Alfonzo (the horse) with my camera. It was great and now I have the 20 photos to prove it!

For lunch, the lodge made sandwiches, but I opted to make my own grilled cheese. Then, Kim and I headed back to the bus station to Quito, just in time to miss the daily afternoon rain. I apparently came to Ecuador just in time for rainy season. Luckily, it only rains in the afternoon, and it never rains too hard. According to the guide, the best time to come here is December. I'll just have to come back some day!

The journey back from Cotopaxi was quite interesting. We took the hostel van, which got stuck in the mud for an hour until another truck came to pull it out. Then the van dropped me off on the side of the highway, where the driver helped me catch a bus going to Quito. I got off at the last bus stop, but it wasn't that close to the hostel, so I needed to take a taxi. Taxis were hard to come by in that area, so I joined forces with a much older French couple who were going in the same direction. Finally, I reached the hostel, just in time to meet up with Liza, who just arrived from her flight from Cusco.

Tonight, Liza and I head by bus to the jungle, where we will stay at Guacamayo Ecolodge, but there will not be internet. We will be there for 4 days. After, we will be in Baños, staying at La Casa Del Mojido Blanco.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cotopaxi National Park

There are so many errands I needed to run before going to Cotopaxi and the jungle - laundry, buy a headlamp, buy bug spray, get out money.... But it is difficult in Ecuador because there's no big REI to go to and half of the ATMs don't work because there is no money. When you want to buy something, you have to find a random person on the street who happens to be selling the things you need. So I headed out this morning and did my best to describe bug spray without knowing the words. It was an interesting game of charades. I ended up finding bug lotion, and left my laundry with the hostel to deal with. The headlamp and money were both a fail. None of the ATMs had money to dispense except for one, and there was a ten person line. Fortunately the bus driver stopped at an ATM on the way to Cotopaxi so I could get money out. That is one of the nice things about taking a combi vs. a real bus! This combi was specifically for people traveling to Secret Garden Cotopaxi, and we had to pick it up from the other Secret Garden in Quito (for $5). After seeing the other hostel I was meant to stay at, I was particularly happy that I ended up at Community. Secret Garden was OK, but it seemed old and a bit smelly.

The Secret Garden in Cotopaxi is amazing. After a hour of windy stone roads, you pull up to a lodge in the middle of nowhere. There are farms surrounding the lodge on all sides. The lodge itself is aptly named, with beautiful gardens everywhere. Upon arriving, we were each handed vino caliente, and ten minutes later, fed a lunch of lentils and rice. Soon after lunch there was a scheduled hike, but it started raining, so I opted for the morning hike tomorrow instead. While everyone else hiked, I laid in the hammock and hung out by the fireplace with the baby calf, Camilla, that the lodge keeps as a house pet. Here's the story of the cow that thinks she is a dog... While the guide at the lodge was on a hike, he found her being attacked by condors, with no family around. He carried her on his back all the way back to the lodge. She was only 2 weeks old. Now she is 6 weeks. Since being at the lodge, she hasn't been around other cows, just dogs. She'll sit around the fire, or lay her head on your lap to be petted. It is amazing. The calf comes and goes inside the main house as she likes.

I also headed to the hot tub, which is in a glass enclosed structure overlooking the mountains. The tub is surrounded by long-stem candlesticks in wine bottle holders, exotic plants, and there is even an iPod hookup for music. It was quite the relaxing scene. 

I shared my room with Kim (Boston/NH) who I met at Community, and an older man who is traveling on his own from Oakland. The room lacks electricity, but has a great fireplace that is maintained by the staff here. The other housing options are a more expensive private cabana, or a tent! The tent is under a wooden rain shelter, and inside, there is a mattress. Definitely a glamping experience. I opted out of the tent since it is a little chilly at this altitude, especially with the rain, and there is no fire nearby. If it was summer, that would have been my first choice for sure!

The one problem with staying at a secluded lodge is that if the other people at the lodge are annoying, you are kind of trapped. Unfortunately, we were stuck with a couple of very loud, very opinionated young Americans who had a knack for dropping all of the glamorous places they have been to "casually" into conversation.

Finished reading David and Goliath and started on The Circle by David Eggers. Already read half of it... It is that good.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mindo Cloud Forest

I finally made it to Mindo today! I have been wanting to go to Mindo every day, but haven't been able to find people to go with. It is always much more fun doing things with friends.

Mindo was beautiful. It is a cloud forest, so it is like a preview of the jungle. We went on a two and a half hour hike through the forest in search of waterfalls. We were told the hike would take 45 minutes, but time in Ecuador makes about as much sense as Peruvian or Bolivian time. It doesn't. I am glad the hike took so long, though, because it was one on the most beautiful hikes I have been on. The waterfalls weren't huge, but many of the trees and flowers were unlike any I have seen. Even though it started raining about 2 hours in, we didn't really mind because we we already soaked in sweat from the hike and the humidity.

To get to the hike is an adventure in itself. You taxi 6 km in the back of a truck bed around windy roads with spectacular views, then you take a crazy cable car above the trees and across the forest to the trail. Normally, cable cars look like ski lifts and have glass walls, but this cable car is made of metal poles and is completely open. It doesn't look extremely sturdy, but reportedly, there haven't been any safety problems yet! I would have been too scared to look down, but the view of the tree tops were too beautiful to ignore. After the hike, we took the cable car back, but there were no taxis, so we walked 4km until we hailed the first passing car to get a lift the rest of the way back to town. When we piled into the truck bed, Martin made the observation that there was also a machete in the truck bed with us. Luckily, driver was not an axe murderer and we all made it safely to town. One upside of the rain was that there weren't many tourists, but that also meant there weren't many taxis either. We were exhausted, and didn't have a lot of options.

By the time we got back to the hostel (after three hours and two buses each way), I was so exhausted that I barely had enough energy to shower, pack for Cotopaxi, and make a fruit salad for dinner. It was an early night.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sorry, We Are Closed

This morning I spent a lot of time trying to book a tour in Cotopaxi. I am finding it a little frustrating to book things. If you try to book in advance, you run the risk that no one else has booked the same tour, and they won't run the tour for only one person. If you wait too long, there is no space. Luckily, everything worked out. Not only that, but the hostel is offering a trip to the rainforest that is half of the price of the one we already booked. Plus, it is deeper into the jungle!

After dealing with the hostels and tours, I walked around Old Town with Sophia (Germany). We stopped for lunch at an amazing restaurant called Heladeria San Agustin on Calle Guayaquil and split humitas and empanadas mejido. Humitas taste sort of like warm cornbread.

The afternoon was less of a success. A few of the girls and I headed to New Town, but because it is Sunday, absolutely nothing was open. We wandered around for a bit, then headed back.

Once back at the hostel, we all ate dinner together. I also made plans with Stephanie (Germany) to travel together after Liza leaves. She is also crossing the border into Peru, and our dates and destinations all overlap. We will travel to Cuenca, the National Park, Riobamba, Vilcabamba, and Mancora together. It should be fun!

After dinner, we watched Maria Full of Grace on the big projector screen in the living room and shared stories about the crazy people we have encountered in hostels.

Off to Mindo with Sing (Holland), Dina (NY), Kim (NH/Boston), and Martin (Switzerland) first thing tomorrow morning!

Saturday, October 12, 2013


This morning a group of us headed to the most popular market in Ecuador, Oltavalo. We fared both traffic and rain, but it was all worth it because the market was the best I have been to thus far. The colors were incredible. Plus, I only spent $40, but bought all sorts of things - tons of jewelry, plant holders, and a baby outfit for a friend's baby. We stopped for lunch at the "food court." In the food court, you walk up to the stall of your choosing, and order food that you see them assemble or cook right in front of you. I sought out the only vegetarian place after seeing giant pig bodies with their mouths stuffed with apples. The presentation of meat here is ... different. Ecuadorans value eating the entire body, and not wasting anything. This includes cow stomach and other parts I don't care to mention. My dish was delicious - four enormous fried mashed potato pancakes with a tomato and onion salsa and a side salad for a dollar. I could have spent hours at the market, but it is important to always get back to the hostel before dark since the buses could potentially be dangerous, though I have never felt unsafe on the buses. Knock on wood.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Life in the Clouds

I started off the day with a 3 hour tour of Quito. Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so Ovi took us to a beautiful church with a ceiling covered in gold. Next, we went to a candy shop and purchased plantains, sugar coated peanuts, and nougat. Then, we headed to the bohemian district to learn about how an artist crafts wooden sculptures, how natural beauty products are made from honey, and how 80% chocolate is made from grinding cocoa beans by hand. We ended the tour with lunch, where I learned that I am not a big fan of (cheap) chicken in this country.

After the tour, I asked Ovi to help me find a battery charger, and we were successful. I found a universal charger for only $4. The charger doesn't look like your typical charger, but it works!

Later on, Stephanie, Peter and I headed to Teleferico where there is a cable car that takes you up to a peak of a mountain that overlooks all of Quito. We decided to go today because the sun was out and it seemed like a nice day to be outside. This held true for about 3 minutes. After three minutes of taking photos and walking around, we noticed that all of the sudden we were in the middle of a cloud. Teleferico is so high that we were literally in the clouds. I have pictures of the clouds closing in around us. It was beautiful, and actually better than a clear sky and a view since it was such a surreal experience. But then, the weather changed once again, and we were in the middle of a hail storm. To put this into context, I was wearing a tank top and Stephanie was in shorts. Hail was completely unexpected. We took cover, and as we were waiting for the skies to clear up, we began talking to Victor, a really nice guy from Venezuela who was also traveling alone. He wanted to practice his English, and we wanted to practice our Spanish, so we invited him to join us at the hostel to watch the very important Uruguay vs. Ecuador fútbol match. This game was hugely important because it was a qualifying game for Ecuador to be in the World Cup. Luckily, Ecuador won.

After the game, everyone from the hostel + Victor went on a food tour led by Ovi. The first stop was to eat cow intestines. Somehow I was the only person to decline. I am glad I did because everyone said it tasted like worms. The next stop was for grilled kabobs of sausage and potatoes. Then, we got something that looked like a tamale, but tasted like cornbread. It was delicious. Our last stop was at a restaurant with live music and dancing. We ordered huge empanadas that tasted like fried dough with sugar. To drink, we ordered this strange hot mora (blackberry) and liquor drink. I wasn't a huge fan, but it wasn't terrible. After dinner, a few of us headed to the Loch Area to go dancing.

The thing about traveling alone is that you are never really alone. I haven't spent a moment apart from my new hostel family. Everyone is so nice and welcoming. I expected I would meet great people, but I feel like I have known the people here for years. They are great. I just wish I was better at remembering everyone's names!

Thursday, October 10, 2013


I am staying at Community Hostel in Quito, and it is lovely.

I got really lucky because I had originally planned to stay at Secret Garden, but it was totally booked. As I was searching, I discovered this place, which also happens to have a non-profit wing. 10% of the profits are donated to a Dutch-run foundation that helps children of single mothers. I asked the owner of this hostel what his motivation was for donating the money, and he said that he looked into local foundations, and this was the most reputable. Additionally, credit card companies charge a 6% fee, and he would rather a percentage of the profits go to children vs. credit card companies. No visa accepted here! Interesting... It would be interesting to see if this would be a model that could catch on - convince hostels not to accept credit cards, and instead donate to a particular program that benefits children. In the US, there would also be a tax incentive. I wonder if that is true here as well. I also wonder how much money actually gets donated... I definitely have more questions to ask.

Aside from the non-profit aspect, the hostel is great because it lives up to its name. In the morning, everyone woke up early and had delicious $2 breakfast of eggs, guac, fruit salad and yogurt together around a large dining room table. We all decided to go to the center of the Earth by bus after breakfast.

The equator line was cool, though obviously very touristy. It was fun to get some photos standing in both hemispheres. As the 6 of us headed back to Quito, it began to downpour. To make matters worse, the bus didn't exactly take us where we wanted to go, so we stood out in the rain trying to hail a cab. Luckily, cabs are extremely cheap here and the total cost was a dollar each.

As soon as we got back to the hostel, I made plans to stay much longer than I originally planned. After talking to people, it seems like the best approach is to arrange a hostel in Quito and just take day trips. I will be here for about a week.

In the afternoon, a few of us went to get chai at a fancy coffee place. We went with an Ecuadorean guy who works at the hostel, Obbi. He was telling us all about the currency crash in 1999, when the country converted to dollars. He talked about how the government was corrupt, and certain elite people knew to convert their money ahead of time while others lost tens of thousands of dollars. He also explained that the current restrictions on converting money in Venezuela and Argentina are to prevent a similar situation, though many people simply convert their money on the black market. It was a really interesting discussion.

For dinner, I headed with some of the boys to get Chinese food. It was a struggle to decipher the menu, especially the Spanish term for lo mien, but after the waiter had a good laugh at us, I ended up with a rice and vegetables plate.

Later, the entire hostel ended up at a new microbrewery that hasn't officially opened yet. Because the brewery doesn't have a license to sell alcohol, you had to knock on the door to be let in, then you pay a suggested donation for your drink.

Upon returning to the hostel, I had a long discussion about the viability of after school programs run and staffed by foreign volunteers with a guy who runs Strive, a non-profit that sends 18-20 high school athletes to Kenya or Peru each summer to volunteer building schools, etc. They are currently expanding to incorporate a year-long volunteer after school program for the students at the schools they already work with. It sounds like a really amazing program. The organization kind of synthesizes my experiences in the working world thus far - high school summer program, teaching, and Fairplay. I wonder if there is some way for me to get more involved in the organization...

I almost forgot the best part of the hostel... For $20, I am sleeping in a private room with a king sized bed!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Flying to Ecuador

I spent the day so excited about Ecuador that I couldn't really enjoy Lima. In the morning I wandered around aimlessly, and ended up at the Whole Foods of Peru. I walked the aisles, looking for familiar foods. I spotted Oreos, Prngles, and Hellmans salad dressing! Nothing too exciting, so I left with an empty stomach and headed to a small restaurant to order a tamale. I need to stop expecting Peruvian tamales to taste like Colorado tamales. It wasn't my favorite. After eating, I stopped into a camera store that actually had my charger, but it was double what it was in Cusco -160 soles. I am kicking myself for not buying it when I had the chance. I will keep looking in Ecuador; hopefully they will have a reasonably priced charger. Luckily, I still have a bit of battery life left as well as a backup camera.

The one thing I did purchase today was Lonely Planet Ecuador. I spent a good part of the afternoon laying out in the fog on the hostel roof reading through it and Googling all of the places listed. Night planes are the worst because the anticipation of being somewhere new is crippling!

Around 2, Sebas picked me up to drop my suitcase off at his house. I am leaving the majority of my things in Peru so that I don't have to cart it all around with me. He will hang onto my Bolivian blanket, a lot of winter clothes, and all of the alpaca sweaters I have acquired. I feel like Ecuador will be a lot warmer - I hope that is true!

Sebas and I grabbed dinner at a pollo a la brasa place, and then I arrived at the airport way too early. They always say you need to be at the airport three hours early for an international flight, but in my experience, I am always there and the airport staff are not. The two lanes for Tame were both closed until 6:30 pm, and I arrived at 5:30.

One weird airport observation - there are these machines that wrap your stuff up in florescent green plastic wrap for 35 soles. It seems excessive, but tons of people were doing it. I also observed this phenomenon in Miami, but it wasn't utilized to this extent. Almost everyone was doing it!

Another weird airport observation - unlike all American airports, Lima does not announce your flight. When they begin boarding, they begin boarding. No warning, no reminder... You just pay attention. This is not my favorite approach, and it surely didn't help my paranoia about missing my flight while intensely staring at the gate for two hours, but at least it is quiet... Until a small fleet of 7 year old Ecuadorian cheerleaders arrive in the waiting area. Then it isn't so quiet. I found it amusing that these little girls play the same slapping hands game that my students played in the US. Some things are universal.

At the airport, I had plenty of time to make friends. I made one friend with a girl my age while waiting for Tame to open. As we were boarding 3 hours later, she asked me where I had been, and said she was looking for me because she had VIP access at the airport and had gotten free food, drinks and wifi! I wish I knew! Instead, I was in the normal waiting area, making friends with the 7 year old child who plopped down next to me. She was adorable, and blushed when she asked me to teach her a little English. She was very talkative. I thought it would be easier to talk to kids in Spanish since it would seem that they would have simpler vocabularies. In reality, though, it is tricky to talk to a little kid because they can't anticipate what words I will know or not know the same way an adult would. They also get really confused when I don't recognize seemingly common words. Talking to kids reminds me at while my Spanish is much better than it was, it sometimes seems better than it really is because I just keep having the same conversation over and over with different people. I am a master at talking about where I have traveled or how much I paid for my sweater, but when it comes to voicing opinions, I am lost. The fact that I was able to get by in Spanish, though, both with the adult and the kid, is promising. I definitely would not have been able to say anything two months ago.

Currently reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, and it is excellent.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Technical Difficulties

This morning I went back to La Lucha for brunch, then to a huge department store for a shopping spree. All of the pants I brought with me on this trip have stopped functioning. Both jeans have serious problems with the zippers and I also discovered this morning that my leggings have a giant hole. I replaced the pants, and found a shirt and sweater to add to the 6 shirt rotation.

After shopping, I headed toward the beach to walk along the coast. When I arrived, I landed in Love Park, where there is a full on statue of people making out. There are also tiled walls with lovesick phrases in Spanish. It was weird. I quickly headed out of there, and on to the section of the park/coast where people exercise. I happened to think it was also a nice place to sit, but watching the other people use the free exercise equipment made me feel like getting a snack, so I headed toward the next section where there are restaurants and stores. As soon as I saw The Gap, I knew I had to get out of there, too. Lima is a bit too much like America some times. So I continued on my walk until I spotted a very strange store. At first, it looked like the store was a flea market of sorts, with bins of unorganized clothes and signs saying everything in is bin is 9 soles or everything in the bin is 5 soles. I almost passed it up entirely, but it was packed with Peruvians, and it wasn't The Gap. It ended up being my favorite store in Lima. It is where Marshalls clothes go to die. One bin was full of Theory. Another bin had only Rock and Republic shirts. Nothing was more than 4 American dollars. I doubled my possessions in 30 minutes and ended up paying no more than $20. I am already excited to go back in November when I am back in Lima.

After the second shopping spree, I had to go back to the hostel to try everything on again and to make sure everything fit into my bag! It does! Then I headed off to dinner at an Arabic restaurant. After eating at La Lucha for all of my meals so far, I thought I would mix it up. The felafel plate was an excellent choice, but I still needed a McDonald's ice cream after I finished. While at McDonald's, I discovered a mini crisis. Gmail finally realized I left the country, and blocked me out of my own email. The only ways to get back into my email were 1- have them text me (my phone is long gone) or 2-have them email my backup email (at Achievement First... so that won't work either). Luckily, Ali saved the day by logging into my account from America while I stress ate a second ice cream. The main concern I had a out being locked out of my email was that I wouldn't be able to access my flight info for tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow's flight, I tried to check in to my flight, but that was an ordeal. The computer at the hostel does not have a functioning keyboard, so you have to type everything in on the screen. I have never seen anything like it. It was kind of like the calculator app on tne computer, but with a keyboard. Eventually, I gave up because not only is the Tame Airlines website in Spanish, but it also doesn't have a check-in section. I then tried on my iPad, but for some reason it kept saying my flight couldn't be found. After the Cusco flight mishap, I started to worry that I messed up again, so I tried calling Tame from the hostel phone. After 5 minutes of unsuccessfully navigating the Spanish operating system, the receptionist took over, and got me on the line with someone who confirmed my flight, but expressed a great deal of concern about my one way flight. While it seems pretty logical to me to have one flight and then take the bus back, this is apparently going to be a challenge tomorrow. Fortunately, because of all of the check-in and computer drama, I was forced to talk to this human, and he said to simply bring a print out of my departure itinerary from Lima. Easy enough.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Farewell Cusco!

In the morning, I grabbed a quick fruit salad at the hostel and then headed to the airport. I arrived an hour and a half early, though I could have gotten there 5 minutes before my flight and it would have been fine. This airport was a breeze. There were no lines, having a full water bottle in my backpack wasn't cause for alarm, and I didn't even have to take off my shoes. It was wonderful. I even paid 5 soles for a ten minute massage outside of the terminal. Had I been less irrationally paranoid about the time, I definitely would have paid for a longer massage! It was much needed after carrying all of my bags the 5 feet from the cab to the free bag check.

The taxi people on the way to the airport are also worth talking about. I happened to hop into a cab that had not only a friendly driver, but also a wife and 8 month old baby! They were amazing people who were very interested in how much things cost in the US and in how much people make. I have found it slightly awkward and embarrassing when people ask me how much I make in the US. These taxi people were the 5th people who asked that question, and it  is clear that it is a completely normal topic of conversation here. Me telling them my teacher salary led to an interesting conversation about teacher salaries here in Cusco. According to the driver, teachers here earn about $450 US a month, but they only work 5 hours a day, 25 hours a week. And, the cost of living here is very different.

I was kind of shocked to learn the schools are only open for 5 hours a day. This brought up so many questions for me, but we soon arrived at the airport, so I never had a chance to ask...

Arriving in Lima was smooth. The hostel driver was holding a little plaque with my name, so he was easy to spot. My hostel, Pariwana, is small, but cute, with a rooftop deck. The beds are super comfy, and I am in a room with two other girls that I have yet to see. Across the street from the hostel is an excellent sandwich restaurant. I stopped there for lunch/dinner, and the food was amazing. Around my hostel there are a bunch of US fast food places - from Dunkin Donuts to Pizza Hut to KFC. There are also a couple of malls, and, of course, small boutique style places and normal Peruvian restaurants. Lima definitely has a very different feel from Cusco; Lima is a big, modern city while Cusco has hilly alleys, sacred ruins, and tourist shops.

In the evening, I coordinated with Ali's friend Sebas to meet at a club for a Spanish electronica concert. The music was excellent, but when it ended, it turned into salsa, which is not something I would say I am a natural at. Sebas's friends were all very nice, especially one girl with bright yellow hair who spends half her time living in Orlando and the other half in Lima. The club we went to was cool because it clearly wasn't geared toward tourists. It was nice to feel like I was experiencing what Peru is actually like vs. what it is like when you are an outsider.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Day Trip to Pisac

I ran into the Irish people last night on my way back from Jack's, and made plans to meet them at 8 this morning to head to Pisac. Since I went to bed around 8pm last night, waking up early was easy. I got to the Plaza de Armas a half hour before Naive and Liam, so I people watched by the fountain. The one thing I observed was that when Peruvian men take tourist photos, the goal is not to smile, but to look as angry as possible.

Once Liam and Naive arrive, we took a 3 sole combi to Pisac. It was an amazing drive. They call it The Sacred Valley for good reason - the views of the cliffs, mountains, and terracing is stunning. Once we got there, we viewed the ruins from below and spent the majority of our time at the market. A lot of the stuff there was the same stuff I have been seeing in Cusco, and even Bolivia, but there were a couple of unique finds. I bought a colorful hand woven wall hanging of the Incan calendar and a hand painted sugar bowl. I really like all of the kitchen stuff, but it seems like it would be really fragile and difficult to transport.

We returned to Cusco by noon, and I met up with Krystie for lunch... She has traveled extensively through Southeast Asia, so she helped me map out a potential trip if I decide to continue traveling.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Black Market

I finally made it to the black market today! I went with Sam and Krystie, the people I work with that are from Australia. I bought a $1 iPad charger because I misplaced mine, a new 50 cent lock to replace the faulty REI one, $2 fake Raybans to replace the sunglasses I lost, and a 3 sole grandpa sweater. I pretty much went there just to replace all of the stuff I once owned. The grandpa sweater is by far the best find. The key to the black market is to go early and to know what you are looking for. Electronics (headphones, chargers, phones), fake sunglasses, scarves, and leggings are popular finds. Even though the prices are lower, the quality is often much poorer, so be willing to settle.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Staying Healthy Abroad

This morning I woke up and took a look at myself in the mirror and found one of my eyes was twice the size of the other. I am not sure what happened, but it is not a good look.

When I told Krystie, my roommate, about my eye, her response was, "Which one?! The big one or the small one!?" I know my eyes are big, but...

Then, after the eye debacle, I tried to open my locker and the lock stopped working! It wouldn't open! So I told Sam, my other roommate, and he simply clipped it with his pocket knife! Good to know my fancy REI lock was so secure, right? Luckily, Sam had an extra lock that he gave me to use until I get a new one.

After all of that, I went upstairs to the bar to get something for breakfast/lunch. While up there, I met someone that lives in North Beach, SF! Small world. He suggested putting a chamomile tea bag on my eye, and it sort of worked. Now I look more like Woody Allen and less like I got into a fight last night.

Happy 90th day of travel to me!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Talking Politics and Alternative Medicine

This morning I had the breakfast shift with Julia. She used to live in Ecuador, so she helped me revise my planning. I am probably not going to have enough time to visit the coast in Ecuador, but I am looking forward to visiting the cloud forest in Mindo and riding horses in Cotopaxi National Park!

I know I have talked a lot about food prices, but they really don't make much sense. The normal meals cost 15-20 soles, but if you inquire about the meal of the day, you can have a three course meal for 5 soles, or $1.25.

I was eating my three course meal alone, pretending I knew what was happening on the dubbed in Spanish TV program until an Indian man at the table over heard me speak. When he realized I was American, he asked the question of the hour, "What's wrong with the republicans in your country?" Everyone outside of the US is very curious about the strange events in Washington.

had some interesting insights into why the education system in the US is like the education system in Peru - both countries are run by people who have no interest in empowering the poor because they need the poor to be ignorant of their poverty and equally ignorant about how to escape it. To escape what he called the system of ignorance, this man has spent his life traveling from country to country practicing alternative medicine and learning about different cultures. When I told him about my back, he invited me to his home this weekend to hold a healing ceremony and to rub snake venom on the inflicted area.

This is one of those moments where the cultural divide is just too large. Part of me knew that this man had been following practices like this for decades, but when he said that he could take a live guinea pig and transfer the sickness inside me to the animal (causing immediate death of the animal) by passing it over my heart, my brain just couldn't comprehend. Who am I that I pretend to know more than this wise old man just because I believe in Western medicine?

After dinner, I parted ways with my new Shaman friend, and headed home. On the way, I rediscovered a store I had been to with Ali, but hadn't been able to find again until now! It is a different kind of store - everything is made by a local artist, the sales people are hands off, and all of the items are pre-labeled with fixed prices so that you don't have to ask all of the time, and so that you know you aren't being scammed for being a tourist. I bought lots of presents.

Seven hours after leaving the hostel, I was finally heading home... Until I spotted a parade. I can never miss out on a good parade, especially one with Chinese dragons, kids holding sun and moon lanterns, and the obligatory Jesus casket. As with all of the daily parades, I had no idea what this one was for, but it was particularly pretty since it was taking place at night. I tried to take pictures, but all of the sudden, I realized the parade had moved in around me and I was now a part of the ceremony. Fortunately, they were headed in the direction of my hostel, and I parted ways with the parade close to home.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


I woke up feeling a lot better, so I headed to Jack's for the best french toast ever. Everything seems to taste so much better when you have not eaten for 24 hours!

This morning I decided that it won't be that much more expensive (maybe $20-25 more) to fly to Ecuador from Lima via Tame Airlines, and since I am short on time now, it will be a much better option than busing. I will just visit Northern Peru on the way back. It will save me 36 hours on a bus and I won't have to deal with the land border. My flight to Ecuador is booked for October 9. That gives me almost a month in Ecuador.

When traveling, I get a feeling that I should be making the most out of my time by constantly seeing something, or by talking to someone, or even by walking aimlessly somewhere. Lately, I have found myself pulling against that urge, realizing how nice it is just to relax or to go out to eat on my own. It makes it more like real life, and less of a travel blur.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Food Poisoning

This morning I woke up really sick with food poisoning.

For lunch, I had already planned to meet up with Liza, so we headed to a trendy pizza place where I picked at a delicious salad. It was a struggle, but I have great news! Liza booked her flight, and she is meeting me in Quito on the 16th of October. We spent the afternoon at Starbucks researching jungle tours. We chose a 4 day stay at Casa Del Suiza, and I could not be more excited. After, we will head to an amazing ranch in Cotopaxi National Park, Papaguayo, where we can hike a glacier, tour a rose farm, and swim in an emerald lagoon in a volcanic crater overlooking the Andes!! Liz is only able to stay in Cotopaxi for two nights because she has to fly home to NYC, but I booked at least 4 nights for myself.

Sick was not the way I wanted to end my stay in Cusco. I couldn't even make it to cooking class to say goodbye to everyone!

Luckily, when I went to check into my flight, I found out I somehow booked it for October 7th and not tomorrow!

I am not sure if that's really lucky as I was all set to go, but it does mean I will be able to go to movie night at Carmelita and Amy's tomorrow, and to John's birthday party on the 5th! And I will have a chance to finally eat at Korma Sutra! It will just mean I will have to rearrange my plans is all. Fortunately, Jessica is a super flexible manager and is letting me stay here for a few more days for free.