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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 8 years ago

TWIS Travel in Ecuador: Adventure at the center of the world

by: Jessi Smith

TWIS Traveler Protip: Admiral Travel can help you book your own ticket to paradise. Give their adventure experts a call at (941) 951-1801, or toll-free at 888-722-3401.

Remember when TWIS Travel guru Matt Orr went on that delightful Mediterranean cruise, or the time when he spent five days at the Canyon Ranch Hotel and Spa living like he was Gwyneth Paltrow? Well, consider me the flip-side of the TWIS Travel coin: The rugged, bohemian side who skips the occasional shower because she’s busy consulting her spirit animal and whose hands-on approach to travel dictates that the more dirt that gets under your fingernails, the better. Suffice it to say I was thrilled when TWIS Travel spritzed me with mosquito repellant and shipped me off to the jungle.

Getting There:

I was in an airport bar, en route to Ecuador---sweating out a fever and nursing an unfortunately-timed head cold with a stomach full of Bloody Mary cocktails, each of which I justified as “medicinal, because tomato juice is healthy and, also, vodka”---when the unsettling analogy struck:

If Hunter S. Thompson and Dora the Explorer were to join in some unholy union, I thought, they may spawn a creature that would be referred to by the haute monde as the Jessi Smith---that is, an enthusiastic, unorthodox globetrotter with an elementary grasp of the Spanish language and a propensity for rum---or, in other words, the TWIS Adventure Traveler … or something like that.Over the next 10 days, I would clamber up the Andes Mountains, pedal a mountain bike across the peaks and valleys of one of the world’s highest active volcanoes and along the Avenue of Waterfalls, trek through misty rainforests, pal around with an island full of Capuchin monkeys and whitewater raft my way down the Amazon River. But first I had to get there---preferably alive.I was a monster reincarnation of pre-tween Dora as I reached into my backpack, tore open a packet of tangerine-flavored Emergen-C and used the limp sprig of celery slumped over the rim of my cocktail to swirl the fizzy orange powder into the remaining dregs of the spicy booze-mato concoction. I then raised my glass in toast to the horrified woman seated next to me, drained my magic tonic and lurched from my bar stool, swaying under the weight of my congested head and carry-on bag as I stumbled in the general direction of Gate C. I was a girl on the move, just sick enough to be totally confident.

Five hours of Nyquil-induced slumber later, I stumbled off the plane in Quito, Ecuador at midnight and collapsed shortly thereafter onto what I believe to have been an actual imported-from-heaven cloud at Patio Andaluz, a 17th century mansion-turned-boutique-hotel at the heart of the city’s colonial center, for a few brief hours of healing respite before I embarked on my journey.

I was one of a dozen North American journalists invited by the Ecuador Ministry of Travel to discover, in a whirlwind 10 days, how to “Ama la Vida” (love life) in Ecuador. I shared an itinerary with one other journalist, Frédérique “Fred” Suavée. As the “adventure travelers” of the group, Fred and I broke off from the others to take the road less traveled into the heart of Ecuador with our guide, Alejandro Jacome, who not only stopped us (me) from toppling off a number of cliffs, but also served as a constant fountain of knowledge about his country’s rich culture, history and breathtaking geography.Before I get to the juicy parts of the adventure (literally, like the part where I impale a fat grub worm on a stick and chow down like I’m at the county fair) let’s get some business out of the way.

Ecuador is a veritable paradise (more on that shortly) geographically located a continent away---but in terms of actual travel time, it’s practically in our backyard. A direct flight from the Miami International Airport (merely a four-hour puddle jump over the Caribbean) boasts the shortest in-flight time, whereas a flight from Tampa generally tacks on a layover---but either option ensures an attractively jetlag-free start to your vacation.Ecuador travel can also be accomplished with relative ease without breaking the bank, and because the U.S. Dollar is the country’s official form of currency, you can bypass the hassle of exchanging currency at the airport. These details may seem minuscule, but it’s a relief to know you can hit the ground running from the moment you pass through Customs---or, in my case, hit the ground staggering toward your hotel bed to catch a few hours of sleep before an early morning exploration of colonial Quito.

Ecuador on the Go:

For an arts and culture junkie such as yours truly, one day in Quito is simply not enough. Brimming with history that includes occupation by both the Spanish and Incan empires, “The City at the Center of the World” wears its centuries like a colorful patchwork quilt. Quito’s winding streets and airy plazas boom with the bustle of modern living beneath the shadow of palatial Baroque architecture that echoes the centuries-old glory of the Spanish Empire, while traces of the area’s Incan heritage are reflected in the indigenous people engaged in local commerce with city-dwellers and tourists at every street corner.The all-too-short whirlwind of a day I spent exploring Ecuador’s capital city was just enough to provide a taste of why Quito ranks among National Geographic’s Top 20 Best Trips of 2013. However, as appealing as it was to linger and immerse myself in the sights and sounds of the nation’s capital, the primary reason for my visit was to experience the wealth of offerings tucked away behind miles of unpaved backroads, in the depths of steamy, verdant rainforests and amongst the chilled, craggy peaks of volcanoes that scrape the underbelly of the clouds---which is precisely how I found myself puking in a rainforest on the second day of my trip.

I’m telling you this because a) I have no shame and b) altitude sickness, while not entirely preventable, is something that a wiser traveler than I might take precautions against, thus avoiding any awkward incidents involving regurgitated scrambled eggs beneath a misty canopy of tropical flora. The transition from Sarasota’s low elevation (approximately 30 feet above sea level) to Ecuador’s Andean summits (I spent much of my trip between 7,000 and 12,000 feet) can be a little rough, especially if you jump immediately into strenuous hikes and long bike rides like I did---but here are some things I learned:
  • Avoid alcohol during your first 48 hours. (Do as I say, not as I do: Skip those airport cocktails.)
  • Water is your best friend, so stay hydrated! This one is the most important---and stick to bottled water, as the tap may be unsafe to drink for those whose digestive systems are not acclimated to the locale.
  • Coca is your other best friend. No, not cola and definitely not cocaine---although it is made from the same plant, which also happens to provide fantastic natural relief for nausea and altitude sickness. Coca tea and coca candy are not only safe to consume, but delicious, you can find them virtually everywhere in Ecuador.

I may have pushed my head cold and altitude sickness-riddled body too hard on that first day in the Cloud Forest, but I would repeat the day, even with the nausea, a thousand times over if I could---for in that moment I understood why the Ecuador Ministry of Tourism’s slogan is love life: It is impossible not to when you’re surrounded by the very definition of it.

Starting the moment I first learned about the rainforest when I was in second grade, my imagination began to conjure a catalogue of images of a place I thought I would never see firsthand, for fear that that by the time I would be old enough to go on my own adventures, there would be no rainforest to explore. At the time, trekking through a rainforest seemed about as plausible to me as exploring the planet Mars.Nearly two decades later, as I stepped from the paths of the Bellavista Ecolodge and into the 700-hectare Cloud Forest Reserve, I found myself under a canopy of what seven year-old-me would have described as “ginormous” trees, standing in the midst of a primordial landscape where lush foliage blankets rich, pungent soil and where the still, dewy mist occasionally ripples with shrill cries of forest’s avian inhabitants as they launch into flight. For the first time in my life, the fantastical dreams of my childhood were, in fact, surpassed by reality.

Awestruck by my surroundings, I chose to ignore the tightness in my lungs, the pounding in my head and my rapidly rising breakfast so that I could continue to hike uphill to take in the sights and sounds of the Cloud Forest. I crossed “seeing a toucan in the wild” off my bucket list and joyfully fertilized the rainforest floor with my partially-digested breakfast shortly thereafter. I regret nothing.The practice of eco-preservation thrives throughout Ecuador, where nature preserves and lodges such as the Bellavista Ecolodge and the Cotococha Lodge (where I would later fall asleep in my breezy, open-air cabin to the lullaby of midnight thunderstorms as the Amazon River rushed by below my balcony---a much more pleasant image than the rainforest incident) provide comfortable accommodations for their guests while maintaining standards that protect the integrity of the surrounding ecosystem---and oh, what an ecosystem it is.

At 98,980 square miles, the country of Ecuador is slightly smaller than the state of Nevada, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in biodiversity. From the peaks of the volcanoes scattered throughout the Andes Mountains to the steamy jungles along the Amazon River to the famed Galapagos Islands, which are just a short plane ride from the mainland’s dazzling coast, Ecuador is a natural smorgasbord of rich, shifting terrain and diverse plant and animal life.Of the 3,000 species of birds in South America, Ecuador is home to more than half---1,600, to be exact. There are also 25,000 species of plants (compared to North America’s 17,000) and a higher concentration of mammals per square meter than anywhere else in the world.

This rich biological diversity made every day I spent in Ecuador feel like a South American safari---particularly the memorable afternoon I spent on the Amazon River island of Misahuallí, commonly referred to as “Monkey Island,” where Capuchin monkeys roam freely amongst the humans. (It was reminiscent of a trip I once took to Washington D.C., but the scenery was much nicer.)

Prior to taking off for the Amazonian jungles, however, my companions and I threw all altitudinal concerns out the window and ascended another 4,000 feet to Cotapaxi National Park, where we braved icy rainfall to mountain bike Cotapaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. Pedaling up steep, vertical slopes and careening (and I don’t use that word lightly) down muddy, winding paths littered with volcanic rocks from eruptions that occurred centuries prior is an adrenaline-spiking, full-body workout that is met with tremendous reward: I’d take this view at the end of a workout over the reflection of my own sweaty face in a spin class mirror any day.On our way into the lowlands, we spent another day biking the highway along the winding waterfall route---Avenida de las Cascadas---between the cities of Baños and Puyo. This biking trail is popular among outdoor enthusiasts because you can rent a bike for the day for as little as $5 and make stops along the way to bungee jump, ride open-air cable cars or zip-line across the valleys between waterfalls and follow the roar of the cascades along hiking trails that end in a refreshing natural shower---as is the case with Pailón del Diablo, a reward which Fred and I took a short detour, climbed 400 steep, slippery stairs and crawled through claustrophobic caves to reach. (Worth it.)We gave our legs a rest on the sixth day, when we spent an afternoon whitewater rafting down the Jatuyacu Rapids of the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon known for its mountainous jungle scenery and the legend of hidden Incan gold. At just $50 per person, the rafting day-trips hosted by Rios Ecuador offer a variety of options for anyone who can hold a paddle, from the novice whitewater rafter and children to the seasoned paddler. The company also provides multiple-day rafting trips that feature hiking and horseback riding in the itinerary.

Our evenings in the jungle were spent relaxing from the day’s activities, usually around a fire, where Fred and I listened to the sounds of the nocturnal wildlife while we sipped cocktails made from fresh-squeezed tropical juices and cracked open cacao seeds, grinding down their beans to make our own chocolate. Neither one of us missed electricity for a moment---in fact it was a welcome diversion from the universe we left behind.

Our days, when we were not hiking, biking or rafting, were spent boating down the Amazon River where we visited various communities of the native people of the South American Andes, the Quechua.The Quechua we met embrace travelers and are happy to share their ways---as well as generous servings of potent indigenous beverages such as guyausa tea spiked with pure cane sugar alcohol (puro) and chicha fermented from yucca root. Fred and I were also invited to join in a healing ceremony conducted by a local shaman and we joined in on a community-wide festive dance, just after receiving a crash course in daily life along the Amazon River that included a pottery-making demonstration as well as lessons on how to shoot blow guns and sift for gold along the riverbank.

This was also the day when I ate the protein-packed local delicacy, grilled chontacurro (grub worm), which I described in my travel diary as follows:“First bite was chewy until my teeth found a charred segment that snapped like a sausage casing, unleashing a substance the consistency of Gusher candy. DOES NOT TASTE LIKE A FRUIT GUSHER. Also, does not taste like chicken, but it’s surprisingly good. Overall, 7.5 stars out of 10. Could use garlic.”

I knew you wanted to know.

The Ecuador Ministry of Travel sculpted our itinerary in a manner that made the transition from the rugged jungle life back into the real world a smooth one, bringing us in our final days to Otavalo where we stayed at Hacienda Pinsaquí, one of the oldest haciendas in Ecuador and former home of South American liberator Simón Bolívar, whose ghost is said to roam the halls at night.

The town of Otavalo is home to a primarily indigenous population, and is surrounded by slumbering volcanoes in the Andes Mountains. The indigenous way of life thrives in the city, where open-air grocery, wares and crafts markets dominate commerce.The town is home to the world-famous Otavalo Market, South America’s largest street market, where the shoppers engage in friendly haggling matches with vendors peddling a variety of handmade local goods, ranging from colorful alpaca fur blankets to hand-carved tobacco pipes, jewelry and clothing. The Otavalo Market is not only a shopper’s paradise, but an authentic look at the lifestyle of Ecuador’s warm and fascinating indigenous mountain people---and for me, it was the perfect place to close out a whirlwind trip designed to highlight the best of the most colorful country I have ever visited.

My 10 days in Ecuador flew by at a dizzying pace (though the dizzy part may have something to do with the altitude and that head cold), but I returned to the United States invigorated, both physically and spiritually, and very much in love with life.

For me, life has always been about the journey rather than the destination, but Ecuador is equal parts breathtaking destination and journey-of-a-lifetime. Whether your journey compels you to reap the rewards of pitting your body against the challenging terrain in pursuit of breathtaking views or to cleanse your mind, body and soul as you melt into the healing hot springs of Termas de Papallacta, Ecuador has something to offer for the Dora the Explorer, the Hunter S. Thompson and the Gwyneth Paltrow in all of us.

Are you ready for your adventure? -

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