After a fun and relaxing stay in Salento, Hannah and I packed up and got on a bus to the Ecuadorian border.
After taking our touristy border picture and going through immigration (successfully), we found our way to the bus stop. Our plan was to stop in a little town called Otavalo before continuing on to Quito. Otavalo is a well-known stop on the backpacker trail for its giant open air market that runs week-long. Since my trip was coming to a close in a week and I still needed to get some gifts for family and friends back home, Otavalo was an ideal place to visit. We checked into a nice, very well maintained hostel called Rincón del Viajero, put our bags down and went to the market. We walked around for an hour or so getting gifts and admiring the sea of bright colors surrounding us.
Hostel Rincón del Viajero
After we were done shopping, we went to the second highlight mentioned in the Lonely Planet: the Shanandoa Pie Shop. While I had tried almost every dessert imaginable during the previous almost 3 months, pie was not on that list so I was excited to say the least. We walked into the shop and were greeted by a very friendly, and very talkative, lady who turned out to be the store owner. Hannah and I each ordered our own giant slices of pie for a dollar and some change and devoured them. The Lonely Planet didn't lie - that pie was damn good. The owner was interested to know how we found out about her shop so we told her that it was a highlight in our backpacker travel guide. Apparently she had been unaware that her little shop had made it into the pages of one of the best known traveling books in the world, so she was pretty enthusiastic when we told her. Unfortunately we had both left our books back at the hostel, so we promised her we'd come back the next day to show her. And we did just that. She had her assistant go run to make a copy of the page so she could post it in the store window. To thank us, she offered both of us another slice of pie - for free! I'm pretty sure we had just finished a giant lunch right before then, but turning down free pie was simply not an option for me, especially considering how delicious it was. So we both ate our second giant slices of pie within a 24 hour period, thanked our new friend, and left the shop feeling slightly heavier than we had five minutes before.
We arrived at the main bus station in Quito several hours later, where Hannah and I said our goodbyes as she was getting on a separate bus to go meet her friend. I got on a bus going to the Centro Histórico, (the old/historic part of the city) to find a hostel. I ended up finding a hostel called the Secret Garden that was located at the top of a tall, narrow building, at the top of which was a terrace with a fantastic view of the city. No sooner than I had put my bags down I glanced over to see Aaron, the guy I had met in Nicaragua and went volcano boarding with. Apparently he had been just one stop ahead of me on the exact same path since then, since I had an extended stay in Nicaragua living with Ileana and Nino. Later that evening I ran into a German guy I had met at the hostel in Medellin. While it wasn't completely surprising, it was nice to see some familiar faces.
I spent the first day in Quito exploring on my own in the usual way: walk around for an hour, eat, walk around some more, eat, check out a museum, and find a place to get a cold domestically brewed beer (always an integral part of the cultural experience) before heading back to the hostel to shower and eat yet again. The second day a friend from the hostel I'd met and I went to get a birds eye view of the city by climbing the tower of one of Quito's many cathedrals. To the west of the city was an amazing view of the Andes mountains off in the distance.
If I'd had more time, I would have attempted to hike to the top of Volcán Cotopaxi, one of the world's tallest active volcanoes at 19,300 feet, with some people I met at the hostel who had arranged a guided trip. I guess it will have to wait until next time.
That afternoon, I hopped on the city metro with a couple guys from the hostel and headed towards one of the big tourist destinations around Quito: La Mitad del Mundo, or in English, the Middle of the Earth. The name "Ecuador" literally means "Equator" because the 00° 00' 00" latitude line runs about 22km north of Quito. We came to find out that there are actually two areas that claim to be the true 00e infinitely many areas along the true equator since it is a line that runs around the globe) - one is a giant monument with a globe on top, the other is a museum with an exhibit on the indigenous people of the region and another exhibit on myths about the equator (of course they would argue these myths to be solid facts). Apparently the monument doesn't lie exactly on the equator according to modern GPS technology, while the museum is actually on the true equator (we did verify this with a GPS capable satellite phone). Just to be sure, we visited both sites.
First site: the monument
Second site: the museum
Standing in both the southern and northern hemispheres at the same time
The museum was interesting as we listened to our tour guide rattle off all these "facts" about the equator, some of which were followed by demonstrations. I don't remember the exact details of these "facts" but it had to do with the earth's magnetic field being different at the equator making balancing on the equator more difficult. To reinforce that theory, our tour guide told us that if we closed our eyes and tried to walk a straight line along the exact equator (basically stay on the red line) it would be more difficult than doing so on either side of it. I failed pretty bad at balancing on the line, and then I failed pretty much just as badly trying to do it 10 feet south of the line, so I'm calling B.S. on that one.
Similar to balancing on the line, our guide has us attempt to balance an egg on the flat side of a nail. After we all watched her do it in less than 10 seconds we thought no problem, but it didn't turn out to be so easy. We all sat there for 10 minutes taking turns trying to balance the egg, none with any luck. I haven't tried to repeat the demonstration back here in the US, far from the equator, but I imagine it would be just as difficult as it was there. So how did the tour guide do it? My thought: when you do something one thousand times a day for one thousand days, you start to get pretty good at it.
Another demonstration was designed to show us that water being poured down a sink will swirl in different directions depending on what side of the equator you're on. The trick was pretty easy to spot but I didn't open my mouth so as to not burst bubbles of all the ooooh-ers and ahhhhh-ers in the group. I won't give away her secret here either, so all you people reading this will have to go figure it out for yourselves. Please let me know when you do and we'll compare answers.
Once we'd had enough equator facts for one day, we headed back to Quito to eat dinner and to get ready for the evening. The effects of the altitude of the city become much more apparent at night when the temperature dropped well into the "holy crap where's my jacket" range (Quito itself sits higher than 9,300 feet above sea level making it the highest capital city in the world). It was definitely a significant change coming from the beaches of Cartagena and Santa Marta two weeks before, and even from Medellin which sits at about 5,000 feet. After dinner and a warm shower, I met some of the other hostel guests up on the terrace where the staff was holding weekly trivia. We hung out for a couple rounds of trivia, and maybe a few more of beer, before heading out to go explore the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, part of the New Town where most of the nighttime activity is found. It was much more touristy, but there was a wide variety of bars and nightclubs all with a great mix of locals and tourists. We stayed out having a great time until the bars began to shut down on us, so we called it a night and got a cab back to the hostel.
The following day was the last full day of my adventure. I spent it by taking a leisure walk through some of the parks and neighborhoods in the New Town, getting a last taste of the delicious Ecuadorian cuisine, and reflecting on the last 3 months. It was hard to believe it had been three months, the trip had gone by so quickly. One part of me wanted to stay and continue my adventures since I had originally hoped to see so much more, but another part of me was ready to call it quits and come back home. Since I had booked my flight home two or three weeks earlier, I had actually begun to look forward to getting back to the States to see my family and friends. While I have absolutely no regrets about my trip, it did reinforce a very important life lesson: the most outstanding memories a person will ever have come from the moments they share with friends and family. I had tons of amazing experiences during those three months that I was able to share with people from all over the world, but already some of those memories are beginning to fade. The experiences I will truly remember for the rest of my life will be the ones that I can reflect on with the people that were there in the moment. And those are the people that I will still be friends with for years to come.
Interestingly enough, the flight home I had booked actually flew me south from Quito to Lima, arriving at about 11am. I then had a full day until my flight from Lima to Los Angeles at about 1am so I was able to leave the airport and get one last day of adventures in. I was even able to check my bag before leaving the airport so I didn't have to carry it around all day. I remember thinking "oh if the weather's nice maybe I'll be able to get to the beach" but what I had forgotten was that it was winter in South America and while I hadn't felt it while so close to the equator, Lima was definitely far south enough for it to be COLD. I quickly realized after leaving the airport in shorts and a t-shirt that I wouldn't be spending any time at the beach that day. I took a bus from the airport to Miraflores, one of the more upscale and touristy areas in the city, just to avoid running into a snafu getting back to the airport if I had gone elsewhere. Immediately after getting off the bus, I spotted a more or less fancy looking restaurant and decided I was going to splurge on a nice lunch before going home. I had delicious seafood platter, side salad, and dessert all for about $15, which was about 3 to 4 times what I had gotten used to spending in most of the countries I had previously visited, so I was eating like a king.
After lunch I got to see a recently discovered archeological called Huaca Pucllana, which is an adobe pyramid and fortress that was inhabited by the Limas thousands of years ago. Oddly enough, it is located right in the middle of the city. From what I remember, there was a dispute over ownership of the land on which it sits, so the Peruvian government wasn't able to start excavating it until several decades ago. They are still only halfway done. It was kind of weird to see ruins like that surrounded on all sides by houses, office buildings, and busy roads with cars zipping by.
This last picture shows the condition of the ruins upon being excavated (right) vs. after being restored. The reason it has taken so long to restore the fortress is because they have only a few employees that are picking up and replacing every single stone to make it look as close to how it did 1500 years ago. Pretty impressive.
The last stop of the trip was to El Parque de la Reserva, which just so happens to be the world's largest fountain park. I went with Carlos, a Colombian guy (coincidentally also an engineer) I met on our tour of Huaca Pucllana. It's exactly what it sounds like, a giant park filled with all kinds of jet-powered water fountains that spray the water in cool patterns. At night, the fountains are illuminated by moving beams of light of all different colors that dance across the surface of the water forming different shapes and designs. Honestly it was incredible. I'll just stop writing so you can see what I'm talking about.
The best part was the lights show, where they actually choreographed the both the water jets and the light patterns to music, and then projected video onto a wall of water. The pictures don't even do it justice, you just need to be there. You can find some cool videos on YouTube though if you search "Parque de la Reserva Lima."
After the lights show, Carlos and I went on our separate ways. I still had a good few hours before my flight so I did what I usually do when there's nothing else to do - go searching for food. Since it was after 10pm, it turned out to be a little harder than expected. I stopped at a bar/restaurant type place and asked if they had any cuy, which we know in English as guinea pig. While these critters are considered pests, or pets at best in the US, they are actually a popular dish in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. After learning that fun fact on the tour of the ruins, I was set on getting a taste before leaving. The girl working there thought it was funny that some random gringo strolled in at 10:30 asking for cuy, but it ended up being a great segue into the long conversation that followed! Unfortunately they didn't have any cuy so I eventually said my goodbyes so I could continue on my search. I never ended up finding any cuy, but I did find a place where I was able to sit down and get a plate of chicken and I think also french fries. I guess I was subconsciously transitioning back to an American diet.
After my late night meal, I found the bus heading back to the airport and hopped on. By 1am I was sitting on a plane, by 1:30 I was asleep, and the next thing I knew I was landing in Los Angeles. I was still tired, but happy to see my mom waiting for me in baggage claim. On top of that, I was excited to get in a comfortable car where I could safely put my backpack in the truck rather than resting it on my lap in order to make room for the other 10 people within a 3 foot radius. On the way home, the same feeling I had when I came back from Spain set in - it was like I had been gone for the weekend. But with three months worth of memories.
As happy as I was to be home, looking back, I do wish I had been able to spend a little more time traveling. Now that I'm living in a new city working a full time job, looking at these pictures is the closest I can get to having a similar experience. I hope that somewhere down the road I'll have an opportunity to pick up where I left off and complete the trip I had originally planned. Even more than that, I'd like to go back to visit the people that made the trip so memorable. Egma, Agustin and kids Cindy, Frankie, and Osman (El Tizate, Guatemala); Ninoska, Ileana, Jenny, Jorge (Leon, Nicaragua); Kobi and Gabi Klaf and their three kids Dahnya, Orazi and Solai (La Fortuna, Costa Rica and Alto Boquete, Panama), diving friends from Utila - Felix, Ahlem (best dive buddy ever!), Javier (fantastic underwater videographer), and Maddie (best dive instructor!); and all my other amazing travel buddies: Ayelet, Tal, Joella and Gili (Panama City); Sammi, Mary and Eneko (Cartagena, Colombia); Marco (Medellin), Hannah (Medellin to Quito), and everyone else I didn't mention. If any of you end up reading this, I want to say thanks for making this trip as awesome as it was; it would not have been the same without you guys.