Making Friends in Ecuador

Socially speaking, my last five days in Ecuador were a contrast to my time in South America up to that point. 

After being a party of one for close to 10 days, I have made many friends since my last update and I must say, as rewarding as solo travel is, I kind of like people.

After a few days of exploring Quito, I decided to leave the city for mellower vibes. I chose a small town called Mindo, known for its nature and, by extension, its hiking. During checkout, I was informed that my bus didn’t leave until the afternoon but that two other residents were going to Mindo as well. That’s how I met Guy and Asif. 

Though they have been traveling alone, both are from Israel and have been on the road for quite some time. A world tour seems to be a right of passage for many Israelis after fulfilling their required military service. The day I met him, Guy had finally booked his flight home after 18 months of intercontinental travel. Such a trip makes my my two month tour seem a little wimpy, but I hold my own for American standards. 

I have travelled with Israelis several times before. They have always been dependable, level-headed people, if not a bit on the serious side – serving three years in the army before you’re my age will do that. Regardless of their humor, it was a pleasant change to go someplace and not plan on being alone.

Over the course of our pleasant two-hour bus ride, through the dribbling rain, we could see the landscape change from temperate to lush. 

While they call this a “cloud forest” due to the seemingly constant presence of low-hanging clouds, this is as close to a proper rain forest as I’ve yet to see. Soon after getting settled at our birdhouse-style hostel room the sun was setting, so Guy and I grabbed our cameras to chase it. The landscapes I’ve seen on this trip can’t be fully captured on a camera sensor, but my pictures are something to remember them by.

Dinner was a treat. From an unassuming restaurant front with plastic cups and plastic furniture, I had some of the best stone oven pizza I’ve ever had. While I know they are capable of some shenanigans, the Israelis kept it cool, not even ordering a beer. We had local juice instead and went to bed early, preparing ourselves for our hike. In the morning the guys met yet another Israeli at our hostel – I swear they’re everywhere – who decided to join us for the day. While I later found out he could speak English like the others, he pretended he couldn’t, so I can’t remember his name. 

The hike was a sequence of five loops, maintained by a local guesthouse. While scarce on viewpoints, the trails cut through the heart of the cloud forest, climbing ever higher on the mountainside. Over several hours we saw dozens of different bird species and some slightly intimidating insects while hiking under dense canopy. I’ve learned that such an environment is not highly conducive for picture-taking, as the camera’s metering can’t handle the contrast between the predominant shadows and the scattered spots where harsh sunlight squeaks its way through. To the eyes, though, it’s something special. 

I have been repeatedly impressed by how my knee has held up to such activity. Three months ago I was freshly sewn up from ACL reconstruction, unable to even walk, and now I can hike steep elevations over variable terrain for hours at a time. The bigger toll on my body was the blisters, but that’s nothing a little New-Skin can’t help.

While we had dreams of hiking another local trail to see some waterfalls, we were thoroughly tired and short on time after eating lunch and deciding to catch the last bus back to Quito. Instead we made our own trail, bushwhacking to a private clearing next to Mindo’s major river. Some napped while others fiddled around on the rocks. What I appreciate most about these Israelis is that they aren’t afraid of silence. When nothing needs to be said, it isn’t. We just relaxed by the water and soaked in the treats of nature before it was time to go back to the city.

While Guy and Asif had their own reasons to return to Quito, I was happy to return because I knew of a group heading south to my next destination. 

I met Tony through Guy before we left for Mindo. A friendly guy from northern England, Tony and I immediately bonded over similar travel mentalities, a love of mountain biking and a surplus of the humor that I found lacking in the Israelis. We were fast friends. The group going south was made of three British girls Tony met earlier in his travels – Toni, Helen and Sarah. 

On Wednesday morning we left Quito (for good this time, for me) to a mountain town called Baños. Yes, we all had a laugh that we were going to a town called toilet, but the word actually means baths in reference to the local hot springs. And despite of the name, or perhaps in spite of it, few destinations have treated me so well. 

We arrived in the afternoon, our hostel just around the corner from the bust station. We immediately fell in love with our new temporary home. While describing the parts of the whole – hot water, communal kitchen, nice beds – the place sounds much like the other good hostels I’ve been to, this place had an invisible layer of something extra, which I can only describe as hygge, that special concept I learned in Denmark to describe a cozy, warm space with a sprinkling of love. 

I knew I liked this group right away when our first mission was to find groceries for cooking dinner. 

While these weathered travelers may justify cooking for themselves because they are on a budget, there is really no finer way to spend an evening getting to know people than by preparing a massive meal together. That said, we spent less than $5 on groceries to feed five people – that’s a dollar a head for dinner and breakfast in the morning. 

While we were out we also wanted to find some vino tinto, Ecuador’s best box wine. As the group’s only sort-of Spanish speaker (they spoke none), I was already proving useful in the shopping department. However, our efforts at finding a liquor store were unsuccessful until I spotted a hardware store with cartons of vino tinto in the window. While the boxes were a little dusty and just slightly expired (wine is supposed to be old, right?), they did just fine.

Finally, before heading back to cook our meal, Sarah noticed a tourist company offering nighttime tours of Baños’ humongous local volcano, which we had admired from a distance on the bus in. For $3 dollars a person we were skeptical of what we would be getting, especially when there is a free cocktail upon the return, but we figured, why the hell not? [More on this later]

The meal was great – a vegetable stew – with everyone doing their part to bring it together. While the wine (and the beer (and the whiskey)) didn’t hurt, we immediately knew this group had a special chemistry. Helen and Toni have been traveling together for close to a year, and both are very intelligent people to balance out how much they like to curse and have a good time. Sarah is one of the most voluptuous personalities I’ve encountered in my life, a despite being a skilled nurse, makes some wild decisions and says some crazy things. Tony is a lot like me, both kind and mischievous, and with a spirit for living well. We would later connect over the fact that we’ve lost close family members lately, which does a lot to change your outlook on life. To tell the Tony and Toni apart, we often pronounced their names “Ton-Y” and “Ton-I”.  

By the time we needed to head out for our 9 p.m. volcano tour, we were a spirited bunch, with full bellies and fuller heads. 

We grabbed some beers for the walk, which seem to only come in 600 mL bottles. Waiting at the tour company we had some fun joshing around with the guy who may or may not have thought we were actually interested in buying a combination canyoning/zip-lining tour called the “Full Extreme.” When the other “tourists” (all Ecuadorians) were ready to leave, we were told to follow the group several blocks away, where our bus was waiting. Of course we decided we needed more beer, so we rushed into a store mid-walk to get some. 

Our bus turned out to be a very large trailer, which had been wired with massive speakers and neon lights. It was fitted with rows of wooden pews for seating, as well as the “VIP” area in the back that included a stripper pole. Guess which area the gringos were relegated to. In our states, the ride was the highlight. As the wooden rig blasted up the curvy mountain road, bad dance music blaring and colorful lights flashing, we amused ourselves talking ridiculous pictures and being generally silly. There were more than a few other similar buses in the caravan, so we thought, just for a moment, this could actually be something big. When we pulled to a stop, our $3 must have run out. 

We had been told we were going to see a lava-drooling volcano. Instead we were treated with a nighttime view of Baños, a dark outline of where a volcano could feasibly be, as well as a longwinded sort of comedy performance that we couldn’t understand because it was in Spanish. The saving grace was that they sold beer up there. Drinking from afar, and clearly not understanding the performance, the entertainers took time out of their practiced routine to specifically make fun of us. Again, you get what you pay for. 

As promised, we were dropped off directly in front of a discotec where we were to claim our free drinks. 

When the “cocktails” turned out to be minuscule shots of alcohol, watered down with a splash of cranberry juice. We decided – again, in our inebriated state – that if we didn’t get to see a volcano, our $3 should at least buy us a decent drink. I take no responsibility for what happened after this. Clearly annoyed, the owners of the establishment chose to simply ignore us completely when we rejected their juice shots. As a response, Sarah felt obligated to relieve them of a small flower arrangement and the pad they write bills in. When we realized what she had done, we made a swift exit as well. 

Next on our tour of questionable decisions, we stopped in at the company that sold us the tour. I don’t know if we sought it out or simply walked past it, but some found it necessary to complain about the fact that the we were promised to see some damn lava and got nothing but laughed at. Doubling as a hostel, with the tour operations closed for the night, it turned out we were speaking to the nighttime security guard, who kindly asked us to come back in the morning. Given that we had already thieved their partnering discotec of flowers and bill-pad, that was unlikely to happen, even if we did decide that we deserved our money back in the morning. Sarah’s sticky fingers picked up a plush seat cushion on the way out the door – I’m not sure why.

After dropping into a hole in the wall Mexican joint for some quick eats, we made the biggest mistake by accidentally stumbling in front of the same bar we had earlier fled. Apparently the female owner remembered us, having realized her flowers were gone. I was pushed forward to translate what she was yelling at us, but everyone got the idea from the keywords flores and policia. We decided to straight-line it home, but first Tony and I had to sneak around the corner to purchase a couple more beers. 

We woke up the next morning, amazed at where the night had gone. Sarah regretting stealing the seat cushion, but paid for it with a hangover that delayed her departure by a day.

We made made healthier decisions the next two days in Baños. 

We cooked in for every meal, making masterful renditions of eggplant parmesan and vegetable curry (Toni and Helen are vegetarians too). We drank more wine and beer but stayed in to protect the locals and went to our room when we were asked to keep quiet. We spent most of our time socializing in the kitchen, sharing good music and making fun of each others’ accents. We made friends with a young American couple we had met in Quito and a Canadian girl traveling solo. Everyone was keen to join in on our massive feasts, which turned into several course meals. 

Tony and I got our biking fix. On our first full day we took a long, grueling ride up what turned out to be the volcano tour road. During the day, and with clear minds, we could better appreciate the incredible beauty of our surroundings – but we earned it. Never have I biked such a steep road, on a heavy mountain bike no less. If it can help describe how steep it was, it took us two and a half hours to climb up and a mere 12 minutes to come down. The exercise, the company and the views made it well worth it.  The next day, after Sarah actually left, Toni, Helen and Allina (the Canadian) joined us for another long ride parallel to the river where we saw numerous waterfalls, one which we hiked to and saw up close. 

While our first night might paint us as less-than-perfect individuals, I’ve never felt so lucky to find such a wonderful group of people. Being good travelers, we parted ways without too much fuss, but I can truly say I’ll miss our time in Baños, and do what I can to shape future situations to be so special. Over just a few days I made some good friends who will always be as welcome to crash on my couch in Colorado as I’m sure I will be on theirs in England. 

I dearly value the time I get to myself in my travels, and I love how my adventure is completely unique to my own experience. However, for the same reason I sometimes wish I was traveling with someone else, there is something so special about sharing your travels with others. It’s a magical thing to meet people from the other side of the world, who live completely different lives from you, only to share so much and learn how damn similar we all are. 

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