After Puerto López it was time to continue up the coast. In my head I imagined a bus that just rolls up and down the coast stopping at all the coastal towns, unfortunately that’s not how things work. We first had to catch a bus inland to Jipijapa and from there we caught a “direct” bus to Canoa. I put that in quotation marks because in reality they threw us off at their office in Santa Elena and then paid for us to take the local bus the rest of the way. Altogether it cost about $8pp and took around 4 hours. If you had a car you could get there in about 2.
As soon as we hopped off the bus a friendly local flagged us down and showed us his beach front Hostal Atardecer for $15 a night we got a private room and bath and flat screen TV but no AC. The view from the balcony was enough to convince me but Victoria wanted to check out another place. The other place was even cheaper but without the awesome view so that was an easy choice. With the sea breezes going without AC wasn’t too bad, but we are from Savannah, GA and 90 degrees with 90% is the usual 😉 I’d highly recommend the place, the only problem we had was someone nibbled on our groceries the first night we were there.
Canoa was very close to the epicenter of the earthquake here in Ecuador last April and there is still plenty of signs of it, destroyed buildings, construction, and closed businesses. I think that may have scared off some of the tourists which for me was great. It’s a great laid back beach town with only dirt roads.
It’s also great place to practice/learn to surf as it has a consistent beach break that’s not too big or too small. So if course the one day we had to rent a board(10/day) and give it a go. Victoria had no trouble standing up in the surf but wore out her knees by going from knees to standing rather than straight up. After a few hours of trying I was finally able to catch waves before they broke. Unfortunately at that point I was completely exhausted so after catching a couple I had to call it a day.
Canoa was one of my favorite towns in Ecuador. I love the mountains but nothing beats a cheap shack on a nice beach in a laid back town as far as I’m concerned. I’d put it up there with the Corn Islands in Nicaragua, Los Zacatitos in Baja California, Koh Rong in Cambodia, or Railey Beach in Thailand, my personal list of favorite beach towns.
Well that’s the end of our trip in Ecuador 🙁 I’m planning on writing a little guide/summary of Ecuador next….. hopefully it’ll happen this time unlike my article about Koh Rong, Cambodia, lol.
Puerto Lopez is a small, fairly quiet fishing town. The only touristy part of town is along the malecon which is a very nice area to walk around or chill at one of the beach side bars. Many tourists from all over the world and Ecuadorians themselves come here to go Isla la Plata, known as the poor man’s Galapagos, and Los Frailes which many times has been voted the best beach in Ecuador.
We stayed at Hostal Yemaya which costs $30/night for two people. It’s in a great location one block from the beach. Miguel runs the hostal and is very informative. Miguel set us up with Aventura tours for our day trip to Isla la Plata. It only costs $35 each (hence why it’s the poor man’s Galapagos) and includes hiking, lunch and snorkeling.
One of the guys from the tour company met us at our hotel at a chill time of 9:30 am. Before getting on the boat, we walked down the beach with the rest of the people in our group to check out the fisherman’s catch of the day. We watched the men carry coolers full of fish from the boats to trucks parked right at the shore while the frigate birds desperately try to sneak a fish from the coolers.
We were the last boat to leave the dock but our tour guide assured us that we would be the first boat to arrive on the island. He was right, it didn’t take long for our awesome boat to leave the others in the dust, or mist rather. On the way to the island we saw the biggest pod of dolphins I’ve ever seen. There had to be hundreds of them. We also saw jumping stingrays too.
Within an hour we made it to our destination. As we approached, hundreds of frigate birds were circling high above the rocky cliffs of the island. They look like pterodactyls gliding through the air. We stopped at a fisherman’s boat because he was feeding fish to a bunch of sea turtles. Again I’ve never seen so many sea turtles in one spot. As you can see, we are already very impressed with Isla la Plata and thinking we already got our money’s worth.
Our tour guide took us on a short 3 km hike where we saw the famous blue footed boobies. There were many babies hiding in the scrub brush waiting on mom and dad to bring them food. We had to be careful not to scare them. They can’t fly and their wings are so fragile that if you get too close they can freak out and break their wings getting them stuck in the brush. It seems like that is easy to understand but I was shocked by how so many stupid people in our group still wanted to stop right in front of the baby and take its picture. In fact this is why one of the trails was closed off. The Albatross used to frequent the island but quit coming because of too many dumbass people taking selfies with them. The trail is closed because a family of Albatross is back and the islanders want to keep it that way!
After an underwelming but included lunch of tuna sandwiches on hot dog buns, we went snorkeling at a nearby reef. We saw angelfish, parrot fish, needle fish, puffer fish and many other beautiful species of which I don’t know. I was so impressed with all the animals we got to see. If the po man’s Galapagos was this awesome I imagine the real Galapagos Islands would blow your mind.
The next day we went to check out the many times voted best beach in Ecuador, Los Frailes. From town we took a mototaxi to the bus terminal and then a bus to the Los Frailes for 50 cents each. It’s free to get in but because it’s part of the national park, you need your passport number to get in. Since I don’t usually take my passport to the beach and I don’t have it memorized (which I probably should) I just pretended to look at something on my phone while I made up a number.
Once you make it through the gate you have two choices: pay a mototaxi to take you straight to the beach or hike the trails where you will come across two other beaches and a mirador or viewpoint of Los Frailes. The choice was obvious for Tim (I was feeling lazy and wanted to go straight to the beach) and so we took to the trails. I’m so glad I listened to him because it was absolutely amazing.
It was realllllly hot but there was a constant cool sea breeze which made it bearable. We stopped at the first beach and went for a swim. At the second beach the rip currents were too strong to swim so we stood on the rocks and ate Doritos. In a little less than two hours we made it to Los Frailes. I can see why it’s voted the beast beach with its surrounding mountains, wide, white sand, and trash free (rare in developing countries). The water had a clean blue tint to it and was easy for swimming. At 4 pm the beach closes down and a van is waiting to take people back to Puerto Lopez for $2.50 per person.
Puerto Lopez is a must if you visit Ecuador. It has so much to offer and beautiful sights to see.
After Vilcabamba it was finally time to hit the coast and get some sun. Unfortunately there is no direct way to the coast. We caught a 45 minute shared taxi ride to Loja for $2 pp and then caught the 8hr 10:00 direct bus to Guayaquil for $12. The Guayaquil bus station was amazing, it’s three floors, has a shopping mall and grocery store, and was as busy as the Atlanta airport. There were literally hundreds of busses, the largest bus station I’ve ever seen. Guayaquil is a port town and doesn’t have a whole lot going on for tourists other than a nice malecón from what I heard, plus a lot of areas there are known to be dangerous and a good place to get robbed. After our long bus trip we decided to get a hotel for the night and head out to the coast in the morning. You can’t catch a bus straight to Salinas, instead you must go to Santa Elena and then catch the local bus into Salinas. All that was quite easy and cost about $4 a person.
Our first impression of Salinas was underwhelming, we had to wade across the flooded street to our beach front hostel. Then when we got to the hostel(Chescos) they were in the middle of sledgehammering walls down, which would continue every day from 8 to 5. They then showed us to our room which looked absolutely nothing like what the were advertising, plus it smelled. At this point we would have usually just left to check out another place but for whatever reason we decided to book in advance this time, which we almost never do. So…we were stuck. We got them to switch us to another room that was larger but still nothing like what we reserved, it was clean and didn’t smell at least, unfortunately that night it started to leak like a sieve from the ceiling and we had to switch rooms again. This one was decent too but we didn’t have any hot water and of course the wi-fi worked nowhere except for the lobby. Needless to say I don’t recommend the place. Their only saving grace was porch with a beautiful view looking directly out on the beach and a location central to town.
The next day we decided to go check out “La Chocolatera” the most western point of mainland Ecuador. To get there you can catch a bus to the naval base and then take a taxi the rest of the way. The point itself is incredibly beautiful and there is a trail up to an overlook where you can see the town on one side and the point on the other. There are some very nice clean tiled restrooms at the overlook, unfortunately some local teenagers decided the woman’s bathroom would be their “love shack” and were quite loud about it. So Victoria used the men’s bathroom, this drew the attention of the park rangers who checked it out and all came back cracking up. I’m sure they got a standing ovation when they finally came out, lol. There is also another mile long path that takes you to another point where there are lobos del mar(sea lions) hanging out. It was a great walk altogether and I’d highly recommended it but make sure you bring plenty of water. If the sun is out, it’s blazing hot. On the way back we just had to flag down one of the taxis dropping other people off, it cost $1.50.
The next day we decided it would be a beach day and after hanging out on the porch and having breakfast and conversation with some cool Canadians(punctuated by sledgehammering or course) we rented some chairs and an umbrella($4 for the day). The touts were out in full force as they seem to be at any popular beach in the world. Despite that it was very nice and the water was a perfect 85 degrees or so, warm enough to swim as long as you like but not so warm that you feel like you’re still sweating in the water.
There is an abundance of seafood restaurants on the strip and every one we ate at was delicious. The cost of food here was 50 to 100% more expensive than elsewhere so it was nice our hostel had a full kitchen(even if you had to dodge painters to use it).
This was obviously a popular weekend choice for Guayaquileans so we were looking forward to heading to a smaller, less touristy coastal town, up next Puerto López!
Vilcabamba is situated in a valley surrounded by lush green mountains. Many of the locals in the area live to be 100 years old and up, hence the name. It’s not surprising that there has been an influx of wellness and yoga-mongers to the area. When you step off the bus at the terminal, the town feels Ecuadorian enough. But the European hippie vibe grows stronger the further you venture towards the main square. Vegan friendly and spiritual cleansing ads a-plenty with English as the predominant spoken language.
We stayed at Hostal Margaritas for $30 a night. The hostal was cleaned daily, had (real) hot showers and included breakfast. What attracted us to the area was the hiking. There are many trails within a short drive as well as the Podocarpus National Park.
We hiked the Mandango trail, named after the sheer cliff rock formation that stands out amongst all the greenery. We were able to walk to the trail head, situated down a dirt road behind the bus station, from our hotel. Make sure you bring a stick with you as there was a section along the dirt road that had a bunch of aggressive dogs. Tim picked up a rock and pretended to throw it at them which made them back off. The entire trail is not for the faint of heart as there are steep drop offs on either side of a narrow ridge trail. We were unable to make it to the top because of Tim’s vertigo with heights, but we were able to get to an awesome viewpoint that provided spectacular views of the valley.
Another great place to do some hiking is from Hostal Izhcayluma, located a couple of kilometers south of town. We initially wanted to stay at this hostal but they were fully booked. We took a cab to the hostal from the bus station for $1.50. The receptionist gave us a map of a trail and pointed us in the right direction. It was free. There are many trails to choose from and they are well marked so you don’t need a guide.
It was a little out of the way for us to come here but I think it was worth it. Vilcabamba provided some great hiking and was our last trip in the mountains. We are now heading to the coast, the Pacific is calling my name!
After Tena it was time to head back into the the Andes to the colonial town of Cuenca. The locals claim it has the charm of Quito but cleaner with less traffic and better weather and honestly I’m inclined to agree with them. To get there from Tena was a bit of an affair as there are no direct busses to Cuenca from Tena, you have to connect somewhere. As we wanted to spend the night at the layover spot we choose to return to Baños over Ambato as it sounded like the more attractive option and we knew a good place to stay right next to the bus station and you can get direct busses from either town. The ticket from Tena was $5 pp this time and then it was another $8 for the direct bus from Baños. There were several busses from Baños to Cuenca so it would be possible to do it in one day but you’re looking at anywhere from 9 to 12 hours on busses (usually without a bathroom, those Vietnamese busses seem so charming now…). Both bus rides offer stunning scenery but the on from Baños to Cuenca was particularly so. That way if you’re not into cheesy Mexican or Bollywood productions you have something to look at (I myself find them entertaining to make fun of).
It’s very possible to find a decent private room for just over $20 but Victoria decided this was the time to splurge. We ended up at the Siena Hotel for exactly $40 including taxes. For that we got what I would class it as a four star hotel right in the heart of the old town. A taxi from the bus station costs anywhere from $1.50 to $2 and traffic can be heavy at times.
The best thing to do in Cuenca is really to just wander around the old town. There are beautiful historic buildings everywhere and the central square is stunning. The Riverwalk is also very nice and borders the old town and if you stay on the old town side you don’t have to breath any exhaust(not much anyways…).
There are also a number of museums to visit, we choose the Museo del Banco Central which is exactly what it sounds like The Central Bank of Ecuador Museum. There was of course an exhibit on the history of Ecuadorian money from prehistoric times up till they moved to the dollar. In addition to this they also display modern art and archeological findings. Out back was the best part though, there are the huge ruins of an old Incan City along with beautiful gardens and a menagerie. My personal favorite though as a general cheap skate was that it was all entirely free. After coming from South East Asia where they charge you for pretty much every attraction it’s been great that here in Ecuador most sights are either free or very cheap.
An interesting fact that most people won’t be aware of is that the “Panama hat” was actually an Ecuadorian invention with Cuenca as the heart of the production. The “Panama hat” got it’s name because FDR was seen wearing one while viewing the Panama canal and they became fashionable after that. Now if this was Asia they would have been selling them on every corner but that wasn’t the case, they were only sold in fancy stores meant for tourists as far as I could tell. We ended up both getting hats for around $50 and they were even able to roll them up and put them in a box for easy transit. $50 is a fortune here but they are high quality and hand made, although I’m sure with further research they could be found cheaper.
One last thing anyone should do while in Cuenca is to check out the Mercado Municipal for lunch. There are all kinds of delicious food and drinks severed here extremely cheaply. We had to try some of the whole roasted pig of course and it was just as delicious as it sounds. A portion big enough for two can be had for $3 to $4. We also tried a bowl of chicken noodle soup for the extravagant cost of $0.75. To finish it all off we had a mora(blackberry) shake for a $1. It was a solid 30 Oz and I’m sure would have cost $7 in the States.
Victoria and I both agreed that Cuenca was one of the few towns we’ve visited that would could see spending an extended amount of time in. The architecture is beautiful, the old town is great for wandering around, the food was good, the weather fair, and most important of all…the hotel and mobile internet we’re both great. Plus you could drink the tap water here, a first for me outside the country. After a visiting the two big Andean towns of Quito and Cuenca our next stop was going to be the small town of Vilcabamba with a population of only 4800 but a popular spot with both expats and tourists for it’s stunning mountain scenary.
Tena is a small city that skirts the Amazon region in Ecuador. For $6 per person, it took three hours by bus to get to Tena from Baños. When we arrived at the terminal we walked through town to Hostel Austria which was moderately priced at $23 and did not include AC. It was however very clean and convienently located.
Initially, we were underwhelmed with Tena. We are walking around town at 3:00 pm and nothing was open. The one thing we wanted to do was go on a hike in the jungle, but every tour shop we found was closed. We were so disappointed we decided we were going to leave the next day. Trying to find something to do shouldn’t be this hard. That night Tim went out to get something to eat (my stomach was still not 100%) and he found a tour company that was open! Long story short we ended up getting what we wanted – a trip into the Amazon jungle.
The tour cost $55 each and lasted from 9 am to 4:30 pm. No one else signed up so Tim and I got a private tour! The trip started outside of Misahualli where our guide peacefully paddled us in a handmade canoe through a small canal to our hiking spot. We saw a couple of spider monkeys and beautiful birds.
We donned our boots and hit the trail. Our guide, Javier, showed us different plants including the plant of which they make Panama hats. He made us headbands out of it. He also used a flower bud to make me fake nails which helped me channel my inner tiger. We found a termite nest, Javier picked at it to make them come out of their nest and then put my hand on it so they crawled on me. If you rub your hands together and smash them they release a menthol scent that can be used as a natural bug repellant.
We returned to Misahualli for lunch and had a traditional fish dinner wrapped in banana leaves and yuca, which is like a potato. After lunch we walked to the river and saw a troop of monkeys. It was entertaining to watch them easily swing from the tree branches, curiously gazing down at us.
We then caught a bus to a go on a waterfall hike. Our guide allowed a couple other travelers to follow us to the waterfall so they wouldn’t get lost. It was a hot, slippery hike but we were well rewarded in the end with a glorious swim in the waterfall.
After the trip Javier took us out for celebratory drinks where we met Abby. Abby is a local that told us about a white water rafting festival going on that weekend called Jondachi Fest, named after the Jondachi River. She said that there was a registration party that night and invited us to come, at least for the free pizza. Needless to say we showed up and registered for the overnight rafting trip for Saturday. Abby said they were looking for volunteers to help out with the race on Friday so Tim and I volunteered.
We got up early the next day which started with free breakfast. We rode with Abby to the race finish line where we carried boxes of empanadas down a steep, slippery trail (did I mention that all the trails in Tena are slippery??) It was physically very hard for me and also mentally challenging as I had to keep smelling the delicious empanadas without getting to eat any. After the race we hiked back up the steep trail and got a free lunch. (Volunteering is awesome!)
The next day was the overnight kayaking/rafting trip. The class of the rapids ranged from 3 to 4+. The trip was only $55 a person and included our own private tent, lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day. We camped at Playa Selva resort. It is in a remote location that you either hike to or arrive by the river. The scenery was absolutely beautiful the entire trip. We learned that the purpose of Jondachi Fest is fighting the government from damming the river. It would be sad if they dammed it because it is quite beautiful and provides so much life to the forest.
All in all our trip to Tena was a success thanks to Jondachi Fest. We saw a side of the Amazon we never would have seen before and are so thankful for how everything played out with running into Abby and having the opportunity to volunteer.
After the capital city it was time to head to the great outdoors in the little town of Baños in the Andes Mountains. We caught the local trolley bus from Old town to the bus station for $0.25 each rather than a taxi for $15 and would recommend it. From the there we caught the bus to Baños which took around 3 hours after all of the stopping to pick up and drop off random people. After the underhanded compliments in the Lonely Planet: Ecuador I wasn’t sure what to expect out of the town. They said the mountain scenery was spectacular but that the town was basically a concrete block tourist trap. I personally found it quite charming if a little touristy, but with the tourism comes easy cheap tours, accommodations, and a healthy variety of food to choose from.
We stayed at Hostal:Nomada and I would highly recommend it. It ended up costing $24 a night after taxes and included a flat screen tv, private bath, access to a kitchen, and free tea, coffee, and water. The hosts were friendly but only spoke spanish. We met people from all over Europe but I’m not sure that we ran into another American there(It’s interesting listening to French, Italian, and German people all speaking Spanish). I will also say that there seemed to be an abundance of Italians having a good time on both Tuesday and Saturday night and that the walls seem paper thin making it rather annoying to sleep(We’re old folks these days, at least I am).
First up on the tourist hit list was Casa del Arbol, a place where a number of award winning pictures have been taken, one of which Victoria saw on a Facebook group and had been dying to see ever since. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Baños and there are numerous ways to get there: bike, hike, bus, tour, or taxi. The first two are only for masocists, it’s about 15 miles…all up hill. You can catch a taxi there and back for around $20 or catch the local bus for a $1 each way. That was an easy decsion, we took the bus. If you really want to hike or bike I would suggest what we did, take the bus up and then hike or bike back. After the 40 minute ride up through the stunning mountain scenery you arrive at Casa del Arbol and after a short walk and wait your turn to get your once in a lifetime pictures. It was only $1 to get in and in addition to the swings they had the tree house(of course) , some ziplines, and a few other photo oppourtunites. We saw some people with bikes when we got up there and thought it would be a good idea to rent them. Unfortunately they only rent them in Baños and you have to bring them up with you. We settled with walking down which took about two and a half hours and was a great way to get away from everyone, we only saw a couple other people the entire way other than the few cars and buses headed to Casa del Arbol. After walking for a ways on the road you can hit a trail at Bellavista that runs straight into town. It was a great hike with stunning views of the town and valley. We both felt pretty tired afterwards and I couldn’t imagine if we had tried to hike or bike up it.
The next day it was time for some whitewater rafting which we hadn’t done since our maiden journey out to Washington. The Pastaza river is divided into two sections, the upper and the lower, and the guides decided the day of where you are going based on rainfall the night before. The upper has rapids up to 4+ when the conditions are right(they were:) and the lower has class 3 rapids. The company provided everything including lunch and wetsuits. Unfortunately the wetsuits are only overalls and it was raining and of course being up in the mountains the water is quite cold and with class 4 rapids, you get soaked(plus…..we’re southerners). We ended up wearing our rain coats and we’re warm enough while our boat mates looked a bit chill. It was a short(1 hour) but exhilarating ride and for $30 was an absolute steal. It also included all the pictures and videos from the saftey kayaker which was a nice change from the States where they gouge you for them. Be sure to check with your hotel/hostel, some people got deals where it was only $25. Another tip for those not familiar with rafting, try to get in the smallest boat, with the fewest people, and ride in the front for the best ride 😉 Also be sure to check out the rest of the videos and pictures from the rafting at the bottom of the article.
The next day even though we were sore we decided to rent bikes and ride the Ruta de la Cascadas(The waterfall route) which is basically just the road to Puyos, a town in the Amazon basin. It’s mostly downhill and then you can catch the local bus or truck back. Most people stop in Rio Verde but it is possible to ride all the way to Puyos. The route is aptly named, it seems like everytime you look up there is another huge amazing waterfall. The is also plenty of opptunites to hike, zipline, bridge jump, or ride cable cars across the gorge on the way. We passed on everything but a bit of hiking at Palion del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) and some hiking and swimming below a waterfall at Machay. That was about 15 miles and took most of the day with a nice lunch break towards the end. I got some delicious heart clogging fried pork called Fritada that I’d highly recommend trying and Victoria had some refreshing fresh lime and strawberry juice. I’d recommend doing it on a weekday as there was a lot of traffic on Saturday.
We had grand plans of going to one of the local hotsprings afterwards but again were too tired and just wanted to relax. Unfortunately the next day Victoria woke up with some stomach issues(It couldn’t have been the food as we both ate the same things and I felt fine) so we sat around and watched TV. The next day she felt better but was still weak from not being able to eat anything, so we stayed another night. Then finally she was feeling better so we hoped a bus to the Amazonian town of Tena.
How we decided to travel to Ecuador was by a random chance. I went to kayak.com, typed in departure from Savannah, GA to “anywhere” and a flight to Quito for $600 caught my eye. I don’t really know that much about Ecuador so I had to start researching. Ecuador is a small country in South America located right along the equator, hence the name. It has a diverse landscape with the Amazon jungle in the east, the Andes mountains in the center and the coastal region to the west. The famous Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador as well, but I will go ahead and say we do not plan to travel to the Galapagos Islands due to our budget.
We arrived in Quito in the middle of the night. There was a long line to get our passport stamped but customs was a breeze. We went to the taxi stand and got a cab for $25. Our tired eyes didn’t see very much of the city that night. We opted to stay in the Old Town district of Quito at La Posada Colonial Hotel. Our room was like a shoebox but unfortunately there wasn’t much time or energy for a debate at 2 in the morning. The hotel is in a great location near a bunch of restaurants and has a nice view from the terrace.
Quito is very much above sea level at 9,000 feet. Being a flat lander the first day was a bit of a struggle as my body acclimated to the elevation. I could feel my heart beating faster than usual. We took it easy the first day and strolled around the old city.
We have never been to a city like Quito. The capital dates back to the 16th century. The buildings are magnificent with oversized doors and intricate designs. There are lots of people around of all different types. There are many police around as well, whom provide a sense of security. We noticed a lot of graffiti, perhaps a reminder of darker times. A popular thing to do is visit the old churches. We went into supposedly the most impressive church in the Americas, the Iglesia de la Campania de Jesus (The church of the society of Jesus). I must admit that it was quite impressive being made of gold on the inside. They ain’t like the churches back home! We weren’t supposed to take pictures but I managed to sneak a few.
For a great view of the city, check out Itchimbia Park. The walk up there was more intense than it should have been but I am still trying to acclimate to the elevation. Surprisingly, we didn’t see many tourists. There is a school at the top. When we got there about 100 kids in their jumpsuit uniforms hurrying past us to get their afternoon snack of Salchipapas (French fries with chopped hotdog)….yeah it’s pretty gross.
After two days we were ready to leave. I’m sure there is other stuff to do and see but the smell of automobile exhaust is too much and we are ready to get into the outdoors. Next stop, Baños.
So Victoria officially has finished another assignment and you all know what that means, it’s time to hit the road again. We originally had planned to outfit my Montero as an “expedition vehicle” with a roof top tent and refrigerator and all that and then drive it across the US and then all the way down Baja again. Only this time we were going to leave it there and fly back to the fifth wheel and then after her next assignment we’d fly down, pick it up, and head into mainland Mexico via the ferry and continue south. Then we’d rinse and repeat down through Central America and then maybe put it on a boat and tour South America too. Unfortunately these grandiose plans were interrupted when shortly after we decided all this Hurricane Matthew hit the east coast and dropped a tree on my Montero I had been storing at my parents home in Savannah, Ga.
We briefly considered buying another truck and a cheap camper as a replacement but ultimately decided we didn’t feel like dealing with all that(Maybe next time?). So instead we just looked to Kayak.com to see where we could fly cheaply. We’d been to Asia recently so Victoria scrapped Indonesia, we considered Spain and Greece but it’s winter there too (and we’re tired of the cold already), and then we saw Ecuador. It’s the same time zone as the east coast so that’s convenient, they speak spanish and so do I now, it’s on the equator so it’s always warm(Ecuador means equator in spanish), it seemed perfect .
Most people I’ve told don’t seem to know where Ecuador even is. It is a small country in South America on the Pacific coast in between Colombia and Peru. For a small country it has a huge variety in landscapes from the colonial towns of Quito(the second highest capital in the world) and Cuenca, to the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, the Pacific coast, cloud forests, and the world famous Galapagos Islands(we won’t be visiting them as it would cost as much as the rest of the trip combined!).
We’ll be traveling for a little over five weeks and that should give us enough time to view a good part of the country. We’ll be backpacking as usual and getting around mostly by bus. As usual we’ve made zero reservations other than we’ll be flying into Quito on the 6th of January and back out on the 14th of February. We will be making a reservations at some point for our first night in Quito but other than that we’ll be winging it. We have a general plan to hit spend a few nights in Quito, head down into the Amazon, travel down the spine of the Andes, cut over to the coast and work our way back up, and then back to Quito and home. Something like below.
First we’re headed home for the holidays for two weeks. I had to get something up as we were interviewed by a friend of mine for a podcast called “Breaking The Chains”(I’ll post a link when it goes live) about people who live a bit outside the norms(us?) and I didn’t want any new visitors to think we’re too morbid with the first post being about the tragedy of Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia. Stay tuned, I might even get around to posting about Koh Rong, the last place we went in Cambodia and an absolutely stunning island.
We took a bus from Siem Reap to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh for $6 a person. We stayed at the Angkor Mithona Guesthouse on the 5th floor with no elevator for $16/night. I had to haggle to get that rate. The room was small and old but what I liked about it was the balcony that overlooked a busy street. Upon arrival, I was underwhelmed. Phnom Penh used to be known as the “Pearl of Asia” due to its French influence and beautiful architecture. Most of its charm was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and what remains is a concrete jungle with rubbish lined streets. Why would one visit this city? It’s crowded and polluted but it’s burdened in the history of the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970’s. In school, I never learned about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The history of it all starts in Phnom Penh. I was intrigued and had to see it for myself.
Here is a little history lesson for those of you like me that never learned about it. Pol Pot was a man, much like Adolf Hitler, who had a dream. His dream was for a utopian farming community where people worked together and shared everything. Pol Pot gathered his followers from poor, uneducated farmers. He basically told them that money and religion were evil and the reason why poor people didn’t have anything. Eventually he had enough followers to take over the country becoming prime minster in 1976. Pol Pot forced all urban dwellers into the countryside to work on collective farms and destroyed banks and temples. He is responsible for killing 3 million people (out of a population of 8 million). Anyone of suspicion (doctors, professors, monks, mechanics and people of any skill or trade) was imprisoned, tortured and murdered, pretty much in that order. Pol Pot told his followers that “It is better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” Towards the end, Pol Pot became more crazy and paranoid and murdered many of his own followers, called cadres, too. His reign ended when the Khmer Rouge tried taking Vietnamese land along the Mekong River. The pissed off Vietnamese came in and ended it all, exposing the atrocities. Pol Pot not only manipulated his own people, he manipulated the whole world. The Khmer Rouge held the seat at the UN until 1982!
We arranged a Tuk Tuk driver for the day ($13) to take us to the Killing Fields and the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison museum. Entry to each was $6 a person and included an audio tour. We started at the Killing Fields where, as the name indicates, the Khmer Rouge sent people to be killed in hordes. Their method of killing people was beyond barbaric. Hands bound and blindfolded, the people were unloaded and forced into small huts. Loud music played from speakers hung in the trees to disorient them. They were lined up and walked to the edge of a large pit/grave. A cadre would club them in the head making them fall into the grave semiconscious where another cadre would slit their throat. One by one this is how millions of people were killed…men, women, elderly, and children. With babies they would simply bash their bodies against a tree. Pol Pot didn’t believe in “wasting” bullets so this is how he wanted the executions or “purging” to go. Walking around and listening to the tapes describe what took place in the very space I was in was surreal. Multiple mass graves are still visible though mostly filled in with dirt and grass now. When it rains bones, teeth and cloth are exposed which you can still see in and around the pits. There are signs saying “please do not step on bones”. Many of the bones are put on display. Some people, especially Christians, may find it taboo to display bodies instead of properly burying or cremating them. After discussing the ethics, the Cambodian people agreed that the bones should be displayed as a reminder to people of what happened, hoping that history will never repeat itself.
S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison Museum) was originally a school in the center of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torture chambers. Usually people were only here a short while where they were tortured and forced to sign confessions of being a conspirator or spy. Once they signed the confession they were sent to the killing fields. The tour starts off by going one by one into the former classrooms turned torture chambers. A bed with no mattress, metal shackles still hanging from the frame, was the only furniture in each room. The museum put a picture of the wall displaying a body in the bed. It was very graphic. Being an ICU nurse I have been around death a lot, anyone who has been around death knows that a certain smell lingers when a person dies. Even though it has been over 40 years since someone was killed, I could still smell it. The smell haunts the entire building. They used all kinds of torture techniques ranging from waterboarding to hanging people upside down until they passed out then dropping them head first into pits of feces and urine to wake them up.
Other buildings contain former classrooms split into small prison cells with bricks or wood. Most of the cells were very small, only like 4X8 feet. The prisoner’s feet were shackled to a metal hook on the floor and had a metal box to relieve themselves. Some rooms were not split up but open where multiple people were imprisoned together and forced to lie down in rows like sardines. There is an illustration in the museum showing how the prisoners were aligned on the floor that reminded me of how the African slaves were shipped to America. The Khmer Rouge took pictures and documented every single prisoner that came into S-21. In one of the buildings many of the mugshots are exhibited. It was very disheartening to look into the sad eyes of people who were taken from their homes, guilty of nothing but being born in the wrong place and the wrong time.
All in all, Phnom is worth visiting so you can see all this for yourself. Thoughts of the Khmer Rouge and all the people who were tortured and killed followed me for days. I couldn’t believe how it all happened under the nose of the U.N. I think this significant portion of Cambodian history should be included in the curriculum for world history in high school. It is gruesome but I think it speaks volumes. I heard a memorable quote during the audio tour by the ambassador of Germany, H.E. Joachim Baron von Marschall. “No political goal or ideology, however promising, important or desirable it may appear, can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected.”