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An Open Letter: Nuts and Bolts of Ecuador

(This is more or less a copy of a letter to two Australian friends that were in Peru and wanted to know what they could expect from Ecuador since I was traveling ahead of them. Call it laziness if you don't find the prose riveting.)

Danny baby, Rosey baby, what's up?
You will have a great time in Ecuador, as I did, and since you don't have a problem with the long distance buses, as I do, your trip will be without worries. Some details on doing it on the cheap, since you asked. By the way, I don't remember seeing coca tea in Ecuador, so you may have to bring your own if you are hooked on it by now.

Coming from Peru, you enter either via Tumbes and Huaquillas or inland via Macara and Vilcabamba. I went through Tumbes, as you will if you are in a hurry. Passing through is hard to figure out, as the immigration posts are 3 or 4 km away from the border on each side. From Tumbes tell the colectivo guy you want to go to Migracion or he will take you straight to the border. The border itself is a truly horrible sight; for Rose it is worse than seeing a chicken foot in her soup. Plow through and somehow get to the Ecuadorian immigration post way out of town. If you are into this sort of thing, one of the Ecuadorian immigration guys will also stamp your journal book for fun.
From there you can catch a bus north. On most buses in Ecuador it is better to sit on one side or the other because of the mountain views. It is worth asking people which side is best if you can't figure it out from the maps.

The best food I had in Ecuador was the first food I had in Ecuador, in Machala. If you are in a rush to get north, you may want to go straight up to Guayaquil, but if it is late in the day already, Machala is a comfortable, nothing kind of town that is meant as a mellow introduction to the country for travelers like us.
I stayed at the Hostal Mercy ($4), which is aptly named because you will wish for mercy if you stay there. It is exactly the kind of place where if it were your first night in South America, you would cry at your predicament, but if you have been on the road for a while you accept it without much hesitation. The rooms are shabby and you open the bathroom door slowly in case there is an unpleasant surprise, even though I don't know what that could be. Still, you can surely do better than the Mercy in Machala.
However, it might be worth staying at the Mercy, for right across the street on the corner of Junin and Pasaje is a family selling bollos. Have you heard of these? It is a coastal food that is hard to find especially since everyone thinks you are saying "pollo", so when you say you are dying for a bollo, they look at you funny. It is basically just a big tamale but the corn is mixed with banana and a hint of peanuts with a piece of steamed fish on top and you squeeze a little lemon and it is the greatest.

I think there are a few people selling them on that street until a little bit after dark, but you have to make sure you get the right family. Bollos are a delicate science and true masters deserve your good business! The husband was black and the wife was Latina, which I don't remember ever seeing in Peru, but maybe it is common in Machala. To be sure, ask them how many kids they have and if they don't say 7, they are imposters! Well, at the rate they are going, accept 8 as the right answer, too. Only 50 cents.

Guayaquil:

Everyone hates this place, but I had a good time. (I am also the only one who likes Lima , too.) You will love the climate after being stuck in the mountains. It is so good that there is a billboard at the bus station telling you that it is 27C (presumably everyday). If you choose to stay, take a bus from outside the station. If you grab any that say "Quito Largo" it will put you pretty close to where you want to go. I stayed at the Pacifico Hostelling on Escobedo 811 (off Junin, tel 568093) for $6 a night and had a TV, private hot shower, the best bed of my trip, and it is in a safe neighborhood. (There are buses that go straight there, but I never figured it out.) A sign in the lobby says it costs more than $6, but smile a lot and look relaxed and they come down pretty quickly. (Another sign says, "We are connected to the military" but I stayed 3 days and didn't have to do pushups or run laps once.) I made a point of staying off the street, but it is really quiet at night and I know you love the noise, so go for a corner room.
From here you are only a few blocks from downtown and better yet, a few blocks from the newly renovated Malecon, which is a great place to hang out. The city really empties out and feels like a ghost town, but the Malecon will have hundreds of kids on the playground at 10pm on a school night. It goes on for a long length of the river and it is safe and well guarded at night. Eat dinner in town before you go there. If you have to cash travelers checks, go for Banco de Guayaquil. See the dozens of iguanas in the trees in Parque Bolivar, but cover your head.

I went to the coast to Salinas and Montanita. Don't waste your time with Salinas, but if you are inclined, avoid weekends and for $6 I stayed at the sad Hotel Oro del Mar.
In Montanita I heard two people complain about the most popular place to stay, a big place on the north side of the village called--I forget. Hopefully the town will have some sun and won't be ankle-deep in mud when you are there. You should go anyway and even if it is bugger-all you can hang out with all the other surfers that booze it up every night and teach them your card game.
A Dutch couple said that up the road in Puerto Lopez they stayed at a great place right on the beach called Turismar Hotel for $4.

Cuenca: I recommend the big Hotel Pichincha on the corner of Torres and Bolivar for $4. My room didn't have a shower, but the common one they have has both hot water AND great water pressure-at the same time! The town is attractive but they are doing so much construction and renovation. The main square is closed and many main streets are ripped up. I was there for a festival and got hit in the side of my head by a firework.

Baños:

This is a great place to hang out. They were evacuating people from a nearby village because the volcano is acting up again, but don't let that bother you. Besides, when it is time, isn't that the best way to go? I stayed just 3 days but could have easily stayed longer. All the beautiful people rent bikes and go downhill to the Rio Verde waterfall 20 km away and then throw the bikes on a bus and come back to town. There are all kinds of trips to be made. Eat at Restaurant Don Angel on the main drag. For some reason it was always empty, but I thought it had the best food. You can get a full lunch for $1.
I stayed in a couple of places. You have to balance out whether the water pressure is good, the seat has a toilet and its proximity to roosters, but the last item you might not discover until it is very early in the morning. It is hard to beat the top floor of the Hostal Montoya on a quietish street with cable TV. ($3) It is a block from the main drag and one or two blocks from the bus station.

I took the bus to Tena. I changed buses in Puyo (sit on the right side) and stupidly assumed my bag got transferred to the right bus with all the other junk they were frantically moving, but I arrived in Tena without my bag and was sick. Worse, I stayed at a place called A Welcome Home and because my nose wasn't working, I accepted a room that I later discovered had a horrible moldy smell. I was really sick the next day and paid the big bucks ($8) for the best, most expensive room in town at the Hostal Travelers Lodge. It is a good place to stay but it is often full with groups that go on the Amarongachi Tour downstairs. I would have done the trek if I was healthy, but I sat in my room and wasted away for 3 days watching a Lorenzo Lamas movie marathon on the only English language channel on TV.
My bag appeared 24 hours later after a little "discussion" with the bus company and the police. Tena itself has a pretty cool atmosphere and is a good base to see the jungle, though you might want to go way out to Coca and start from there. I think probably all of the tour companies in Tena have offices in Quito.

Quito: I stayed at Hostal Adventure for $5.70 on a quiet street (E4-225 J. Pinto near Amazonas) which was OK, but you can do better for the money elsewhere. Best Internet connection in all of Ecuador was at Papaya.net. I think it is on the corner of Mera and Foch. Most people know about it. If you have the time check out the Quito Women's Prison. The memory of it will last longer than anything else you see. Mitad del Mundo, the equatorial line faux "town", is not really worth the trip out of town as the photo opps aren't good and the whole place was in a raging dust storm when I was there.

Otavalo: The Saturday market is a fun spectacle, but if you are looking to buy, I got my stuff from the market in the main square (more or less an everyday market) and from the shops. (I spent a loooong time bargaining, too) The people that sell up and down on the side streets on Saturday I don't think are looking to deal. Actually, since many of the sellers are kids and they aren't selling anything unique, I think it is a vast conspiracy, that the kids are shills for the people already selling in the shops. They are just there to make the market look bigger and to sell more. I stayed at a great place not in the book for some reason, Hostal Los Andes right on the main square at the corner of Quiroga and Sucre. For $4 I had my own room, shower, TV, a toilet with seat, etc. It is worth calling a day or two before to make a reservation. Talk to Humberto Morales, tel 06-921057. The best thing about the Saturday market is maybe the animal market.

Apparently there is a bigger one outside of town, but there is one a block to the northeast of the main square early in the morning.
Only cheap place I found to eat dinner was of the way up the street parallel to Sucre that also runs alongside and above the main square. It is farther along but on the same side as the always-empty Peruvian restaurant.

Have a great trip and remember, it's all about kentfoster.com, baby!
-Kent

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