Ecuador as a first country to explore on this around the world adventure has proven to be a good decision. Many asked,“why Ecuador?” There are a few reasons, but the country was chosen primarily because of my enrollment in Cambridge University’s Celta course through the International House of Montañita. Having the Celta certification gives me the opportunity to teach English as a second language abroad. The experience was one for the ages and you can learn all about it on the OWOW youtube channel.
Outside of the Celta course, Ecuador has allowed us to transition abroad easily because of its use of U.S. currency, its favorable relations with the U.S., and the friendships we had with residents of the country prior to our arrival.
The flight into the country landed us in Quito and our arrival coincided with celebrations throughout the country beginning with The Festival of Lights, which is known in Spanish as La Fiesta de la Luz. This is where historical buildings in old town Quito are illuminated like a Christmas tree! We also experienced celebrations of Día del Primer Grito de Independencia, where Ecuadorians celebrate their independence from Spain’s rule. On the 10th of August every year since 1830, Ecuadorians parade the streets with music, bands, fireworks, and dances that characterize the highest height of celebrations.
The first full day in this major city had us visiting the middle of the world museum where you can stand on both sides of the equator. Before our visit, we learned about the two middle of the world complexes near Quito. The more popular location is Ciudad Mitad del Mundo and the other is Intiñan Solar Museum. Luckily, we decided to visit Intiñan Solar Museum thanks to the suggestion of a local friend. We learned later that the other middle of the world museum isn’t officially located on the Equator. Meanwhile, we received history lessons on the local culture and learned how the equator impacts the weather and our celestial environment at Intiñan. It was a worthy trip indeed!
Rather than a taxi, we opted to walk into town and take the public bus at .30 cents each. Our hostel hosts from Colonial House in Quito were more than helpful in providing us with directions. The bus route covered a good distance both ways and we were even serenaded while aboard.
During our visit to the middle of the world we learned some interesting things, including;
- How the force of gravity is stronger on one side of the Equator than the other. For example, if you pour water down a drain on one side of the Equator, it rotates clockwise and on the other side, the water falls counter clockwise.
- There are 12 indigenous communities in Ecuador. Some of them include the Quitocara, Chikachira, Shuar and the Waorani communities. There are about 2,500 Waoroni people who live in the Amazon of Ecuador. They roam uninhibited and unclothed.
- You weigh 1 kilo less when standing on the line of the Equator.
- Guinea pigs are a delicacy throughout much of South America. When cooked for food they are known as “Cuy”.
- Balancing an egg on the top of a pinned nail situated on the Equator line is not an easy task.
Most people are not aware of the altitude when visiting the highlands of Ecuador. Behind La Paz in Bolivia, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world at 2,850 meters above sea level. The thin air in Quito can wreak havoc on your respiratory and breathing if you do not acclimatize to the area before partaking in strenuous activity. The simplest movement when first arriving can leave some people gasping, out of breath and with a rapid heart rate. The weather is deceptive as well. Ecuador is on the Equator and close to the sun, but when you’re in the mountains, it is cold (especially at night). 60 plus degree weather in the day and 40 plus degree weather in the evenings.
Prior to our U.S. departure, we purchased Cabin Zero backpacks that have served us well. In our continued effort to downsize, we found ourselves needing to shed our additional rolling suit cases for hiking backpacks that would help us to transport our belongings with ease. The decision to visit Guayaquil twice had everything to do with need versus want. Out of all of the cities we visited in Ecuador, Guayaquil was our least favorite. It is one of the biggest cities in the country and in comparison to Quito, the capital, it is filled with a massive amount of vendors. If you’re a shopper, Guayaquil is likely a place you’d want to visit. Unfortunately, the price for certain things are incredibly high. Any item that is imported into Ecuador from the U.S.A. is likely three times the price of what you would pay for it back home in the States, including; appliances, vehicles, clothes, shoes and U.S. branded foods. Finding hiking backpacks on Amazon at $65 US each had us on cloud nine until we learned that with international shipping rates and custom fees, the price would go to $225 US each. We easily decided to bite the bullet and make the purchase here, finding one backpack in Guayaquil for $100 US (40L) and another in Cuenca for $140 US (60L).
The time spent in Guayaquil on both stints was short. With the first, we flew from Quito into Guayaquil and stayed two nights in a co-ed dormitory at a hostel. Hostel Nucapacha is located in a quiet suburban area. We enjoyed the location and staying in hostels helps us to stretch our finances and keeps us grounded with meeting a variety of people on this journey. Electing to stay in a dorm room versus a private room this early helped us to adapt quickly to life on the road. With the celebration of Ecuador Independence, our hostel stay here on night one was not ideal. The guests were friendly, but some of them were also loud and noisy for most of the night. On the second and final night, however, we had peace and quiet.
When we returned to Guayaquil for our second visit, we took a van from Salinas into the city. Our stay was at Hotel Jira, which is located in the Bahia Shopping District. The Bahia Shopping District is noisy, loud, smelly and completely over saturated with people. If we were ever faced with staying in Guayaquil again, we would avoid this particular area all together.
The bulk of our time was spent in Moñtanita. A small beach town situated on the pacific coast of Ecuador; Montañita is a popular destination for surfers and party goers. You will also find an eclectic group of travelers to the city, including students. We landed here because of my enrollment in the Celta course through the International House of Moñtanita. Celta is a teacher training qualification that is specifically aimed at teaching English as a foreign or a second language abroad. The qualification is offered by Cambridge University and can be obtained in many countries around the world at specifically accredited schools or centers. Thanks to a good friend, I saw photographs of the tropical and lush environment in advance and they were beautiful; something out of a dream! So, for a little over a month, five (5) weeks to be exact, Caca Cacique in Montañita, Ecuador was our home.
With individual cabanas made from bamboo and sharing daily meals with fellow students in the course, prepared by the cooks at Caca Cacique, we evolved into a family. Our facility was equipped with a swimming pool, wifi and a resource room that housed computers, copiers, printers, as well as reference and research materials for teaching and learning. For better or worse, I will always remember the Montañita Celta experience. The bad or negative things involved:
- The humidity – Everything was wet or damp. We had a huge problem with the humidity; it was torrential and produced mold in our living quarters. This caused damage to a co-learner’s computer and another co-learner left the course early because of the health challenges it presented. Clothes, hats, luggage, towels, etc. were all affected by the mold.
- The food – 20% of the time, the food was decent, but the other 80% it was horrible. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I asked to have eggs fully cooked as opposed to runny or under cooked. I stopped asking and often times chose to go without breakfast.
- The weather – It was the rainy season in Ecuador while we were there. Our days were filled with a lot of rain and little to no warmth. I think we may have seen the sun come out twice during our entire stay in Montañita. The weather was not ideal and not expected.
- The mosquitos – They were everywhere and they bit constantly! Luckily, we were forewarned so we came prepared with the proper repellent.
- The discrimination – The Montañita Celta experience prepared me for real life experiences with world travel. It will forever be linked to my baptism into racial/gender/orientation discrimination abroad. I fully understand now that as a black, same gender loving woman who is traveling the globe; I am not afforded the same rights as others or that I once had in my home country. The school where I enrolled in the Celta course, handled my mistreatment horribly and added insult to injury after it was reported. These things will not, however, deter the decision to continue traveling.
A few of the positives included;
- Having ample one on one time with the tutors. – There are only 12 students allowed per course and we were divided up into two groups of six (6). This set up gave us opportunities for a good amount of time with our instructors.
- The teaching practice – I taught at two levels; elementary and intermediate. The practice gave me the experience needed as a new ESL Teacher.
- The methodology – We were all trained with practical hands-on experience as teachers in the classroom and we taught students from various learning levels. For a portion of the day we learned from the tutors and spent the other portion on lesson planning and teaching real life ESL students from the community. The classroom approach as a Celta teacher is very different from what is typically seen. Rather than dumping information into the student’s lap, I served as a guide for the students in discovering a key concept or teaching point. Grading language and ensuring activities were student centered was emphasized along with pairing students together in group work. The Celta methodology is truly fascinating!
- The spousal bond – Although she did not enroll in the course, for an additional cost, Vanessa was allowed to reside at Caca Cacique with me. Her presence was a tremendous help!
- New Bonds – I met some incredible people who I am forever bonded with.
Outside of Caca Cacique, the streets of Montañita are unpaved dirt roads littered with cow, horse and dog poop. The town people are friendly and food cost from the street vendors and at some of the restaurants are dirt cheap. The beach is not the cleanest, but nearby is the town of Olón, where a peaceful and much cleaner beach with condominiums are situated. If you want to listen to live latin music, reggaeton or hip hop, Montañita is filled with clubs that can give you what you need. Considering all of the distractions, I found Montañita to be an odd choice as a location for a Celta school. In the end, however, our stay concluded on good note with a successful pass of the teacher training.
To celebrate and get over the madness of the Celta training as well as celebrate my birthday and our wedding anniversary, after Montañita, we headed an hour and a half west to Salinas. When we arrived, the sun shined brightly, as if God was saying, “You are welcome here, come on in!” The clouds were sky blue, the climate was warm and the sea waters were a mixture of aqua-blue. The surroundings were the complete opposite of Montañita and boy was I a happy camper! We were beach bums everyday, exploring several beaches and restaurants on the strip with Playa La Chocolatera being our favorite spot.
Salinas puts me in the mind of a mini version of South Beach near Miami, Florida (my hometown) and the area served fresh ceviche which I absolutely love! I think I will always have fond memories of Salinas because it is where I let it all go, including my hair. I went completely bald with cutting off all of my locs on September 16, 2017 and I haven’t looked back. I decided it was best to rock the ultimate fade….. no hair at all.
Cuenca has an old colonial small town feel, but with a huge expat community. Arriving with low expectations, we were pleasantly surprised by the city. The architecture alone is gasping and breathtaking, especially the Catedral Metropolitana de la Immaculada Concepción also known as The New Cathedral in English. Built in 1885, the building itself is enormous with stunning stained glass windows and mosaics. As a woman of faith, I am always drawn to churches in my travels and this one was worth exploring every detail. Climbing over 150 stairs to reach the top, the view of the city from above is amazing (even with the rain)!
Offering a place for us to stay while in town, we crashed with my fellow Celta learner and good friend Bob and even met up with another former Celta classmate in town, Michelle.
In Cuenca, we were able to take care of a few things including; getting that second backpack for our travels, seeing a dentist to have a tooth pulled ($20), a podiatrist ($35) and getting information on how to go about getting our last round of Hep A vaccination in the city (which is free of cost $0).
Located in the highlands, Cuenca’s temperatures range between 50 and 70 degrees year round and they have two season, the dry season and the rainy season. The plus is that the weather is consistently between those two points and it is warmer than Quito, but 65 to 75 degree weather without constant rain is ideal for me. We enjoyed our time here immensely and would definitely like to return.
As we continued our way, we made a brief stop in Loja. We could not resist after having heard so many good things about the city. Loja has a rich tradition in the arts and as artists ourselves, we thought what better city to explore.
Loja is one of the most progressive cities in Ecuador; the first to use electric energy and very easy to get around. We could see from the infrastructure and the work they are putting into its roads and buildings that they have the right idea. We walked and took the public bus everywhere; easily understanding the various routes around the city. Taxis in Loja are cheap with $1.25 being the lowest to pay during the day and $1.50 being the lowest to pay at night.
The weather is better when compared to Quito and Cuenca. It isn’t necessary to have central heat or air in your homes, but some nights may get cool and require extra layers for a bit a warmth. Much like Cuenca, Loja’s weather is consistently the same year round. We found the people of Loja to be both friendly and social. As travelers in Loja, we were always treated fairly and given the same price as the locals for the purchases we made. This was a huge plus for being in Loja and we wish we could say the same for the other cities in Ecuador that we visited.
The day trip to Vilcabamba, a small village just a little over an hour in the Loja province, was worth our time. Vilcabamba comes from the Quichea language is referred to as the “Sacred Valley of Longevity”. Many of the villagers are known to live up to and beyond the age of 100 years old. Travelers from all over come to the area to take a dip in Rio Vilcabamba. The waters from this river are known for its healing powers of long life.
The weather was perfect due to its location being just further south and the township is small and quaint. We took a bus ride in and made our exit into the town center; afterwards, a lengthy hike up to Rio Vilcabamba had us enjoying the day with love, smiles and much laughter. We met a few travelers along the way who bathed in the water with their children and bought all of their shampoo and soap with them. We entered the river ourselves and took our time communing with God.
Traveling back to the town center, we met an American who was kind and gracious enough to speak with us about her time in the village and recommend a few good places to grab a bite to eat for lunch. She has made Vilcabamba her home for retirement. We took note that there were quite a few American expat business owners in the area and the prices at their establishments were much higher than what we expected and noticed at other places we visited. It’s unfortunate, because the villagers can hardly afford to eat at those establishments. Below are a couple of photos from our trip to this sacred place. Enjoy!
What we learned
Below are seven (7) little known facts we learned about Ecuador during our visit:
- Because of its location on the Equator and the fact that the country is divided up into various geographical regions, (e.g. the Amazon, the Highlands, the Coastal region and the Galapagos Island), Ecuador is known to produce hundreds of thousands of plants and flowers. They are beautifully displayed around town. In fact, Ecuador is the third largest exporter of flowers in the world and hold the #1 spot in orchids.
- Cuenca has the largest American expat retirement community.
- Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The famous Panama Hat originated in Ecuador, not Panama as most believe. President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the hat by being photographed during his visit to the Panamanian Canal. We took a visit to the Museum in Cuenca where the hats are made and where some of the original machinery is housed.
- Rather than going to the Galapagos Island, (which is very expensive for non-Ecuadorian residents because of the flights to the island and the outrageous $100 USD park entry fee), for only $6 USD you can take a bus to Puerto López from Montañita and from Puerto López for $50 USD you can take a boat ride to Isla De La Plata, which is known as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos Island”. Here you can view various wildlife species of birds and animals and even participate in whale watching. Each weekend we were in Moñtanita, we wanted to take advantage of this option, but never got around to doing so because of my hectic study schedule.
- No one in Ecuador can be refused medical healthcare. In fact, Ecuador has one of the best healthcare systems in South America. Having an MRI in Ecuador is only $150 USD compared to $1500-2000 USD in the States. Plus, medical records belong to the patient. The doctor delivers them to you, along with any recommendation and you can do with them as you please, easily going somewhere else for a second opinion or follow-up treatment if you choose to do so.
- Ecuador is the #1 exporter of bananas in the world.
Most memorable moment in the country: Rio Vilcabamba
Favorite Ecuadorian food: Ceviche Camaron for Jetta & None for Vanessa
Worst Ecuadorian food: Quinoa mush mix during Celta training at Caca Cacique
The best adventure: Standing on the Equator at Museo Intiñan for Vanessa and Photography Excursion of The New Cathedral in Cuenca for Jetta
Favorite place visited: Salinas
Least Favorite Place Visited: Guayaquil
Best Sunset: Loja
Biggest Regret: Over spending in Cuenca for Jetta and booking a stay in the Bahia Shopping District (Guayaquil) for Vanessa
Best advice for anyone visiting Ecuador:
- Do not rent a car. Walk, use public transport or taxis. The buses and taxis are super cheap.
- Bring small monetary amounts with you. No bills bigger than $5 is ideal. $1 bills, $1 coins and quarters are perfect! You may able to get away with a $10 bill, but keep them as low as you can. Nickel and dimes work well too.
- Expect the Gringo price for anything that is not scanned by a computer or labeled with pricing.
- If you can, try to learn some Spanish before your visit. It will help you tremendously with communicating.