Panama: Airport to Canal to Airport (with a mall involved?)

A man, a can, a panama, a canal, Panama, a planama, a canama, wait, what?? Oh, a man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

With thirteen hours to kill in Panama, I decided to venture out to the canal via public transit. I definitely could have seen part of the city, too, but with the searing heat and the tyranny of decisions, I didn’t make it much further. I could have taken a cab or one of many tours from the airport, but with ample time and an aching wallet, public transit was definitely the way to go.

After going through customs, I exited the airport and followed the very clearly marked signs for public transit. These signs, of course, all noted that one needed a prepaid card, but whatever. Ten minutes or so later, I came to the main highway. I asked someone sitting at the bus stop there if it was the stop with buses to the city. Nope! Cross the road. I did so, and ask a lady at that bus stop, just as a bus pulls up. She urged me on, so I followed, hoping that it was the right bus.

It wasn’t the bus I’d planned, of course, but it was going in the general direction of downtown, so I figured that I’d make it work, and befriended the lady standing next to me, who very helpfully told me that this bus would go to Albrook Mall, which was a center for transportation and, bless, has free WiFi. I somehow also managed to be on the one bus that didn’t require a card to pay, and was able to use cash to pay the $1.25 when I got off.

At Albrook Mall, there were buses everywhere going to anywhere–I considered briefly hopping onto one to Costa Rica, but decided it’d make getting back to the airport a bit hard. I found a stall inside the terminal that sold the little bus cards I needed, and presented my passport. It was $2 for a card, and she had me put $2 on it.

The only challenging part of this day was figuring out where to get on the bus. With every bus seeming to have one of twenty designated spots, this was a struggle, and I ended up getting on a couple, asking the drivers if it was the bus to Miraflores, and following their directions until I thought myself in the right spot. When other tourists started showing up, I knew I’d been successful, but still had to wait half an hour! The fare was $0.25.

There was no way around the $15 entrance fee, which included access to their museum area and a short informational video offered in English and Spanish. I arrived around 10:45 just in time to head out to the viewing platforms, where I saw a boat leaving the lock. The next boat was due to arrive at 3:30. I killed an hour wandering through the museum, but decided that I was too tired and grumpy to stick around much longer.

I returned to the bus terminal (another $0.25 from my card) and went into the mall. To my disappointment, all the food was chain food and as expensive as in the US. The only correct decision was to eat ice cream for lunch and sit and watch people. When I finally decided I should head back to the airport, I found the bus far more quickly due to the people with suitcases standing at the stop. This ride was $0.50, so I still have a dollar on my Panaman transit card–a good reason to come back.

 

Ecuador: Quilotoa Loop: pt.2: Isinlivi to Chugchilán

I was super antsy once morning came to get on the road, which was everything started falling apart. I like hiking alone. I learned to like hiking alone way back when in Zion, when I found that it was amazing to sing at the top of one’s lungs with nobody around for miles, to sporadically run for ten feet and to walk super fast, to not take breaks but to snap photos of everything… I love hiking, I really do. But I had enjoyed hiking with Kevin the previous day, and we had made a friend at Llullu Llama who wanted to hike with us too, so off we set.

This was fine until we realised we had taken a wrong turn, and then another two lovely friends caught up with us. Again, all fabulous people, but yeah, I’m kind of awful and impatient, and I was not handling the indecisiveness well. When we finally decided to go in what we thought was the correct direction, a man called to us from way up on top of the canyon and told us to go back the other way. So we did, for a while, but were pretty confident that was wrong. So we went the second way again. And then, thankfully, another Ecuadorian came down from the canyon and led us off in the direction we had thought was correct. Sigh. 

We got to the top of the mountain, only to have another two friends catch up! At this point, I was at peak grumpiness, and feeling very impatient. I went ahead of the others for a bit and quickly found where we were on the instructions–we had thought we were a couple of kilometers ahead of where we actually were, which had been our problem. I waited for ten minutes but found no sign of them–later I found out they had all stopped to hang out with a donkey for a while–so I decided that I was on my own again, and queued up some Grizzly Bear. 

The fields were green and the sun was bright through the next few miles. I walked by a farm where two adults were working and a few kids were playing, and finally got an opportunity to share the lollies I had brought with me–Fruit Bursts, all the way from New Zealand. I asked the adults if I could give the children lollies, and they nodded, and then asked “What about us?!” These kids were quite polite and shy, but seemed excited by their new treats. I don’t think they had any idea what New Zealand was, but hey.

After, I came into a tiny village with a schoolyard, a church, and a very protective dog who barked at me and barked at me and barked at me as I walked by his field. I told him he was silly, and he barked at me some more. It was a delightful conversation. The hardest part of the entire loop followed this tiny village–there was a kilometer or so directly uphill. I met another two kids and gave them some more kiwi lollies, and then we laughed together about how much I was sweating. It was absolutely beautiful though. When I was almost at the top, a man called out to me from above, and told me I was almost there.

We chatted for a while as I looked out over the valley. He was an artist and had little paintings that he did for sale, and I wasn’t sure if he was chatting because he wanted to talk or if he wanted to sell me things. Regardless, it was an enjoyable conversation–we touched on divorce and farming, always fun. His children went to school down in the valley and walked that hill every day during the school year, which I thought was pretty cool.

Not long after, I hit the road again, which was the most boring two kilometers. It started pouring, and even with my rain jacket, I felt like a little bit of a drowned rat. A few of us had talked about staying at Hostal Cloud Forest, so I went there, but I later decided that Hostal El Vaquero looked like a really cool place. It was only about 1:30 despite all the time I’d spent being lost–so if I had set off at 7:30 as I’d have liked to instead of 9:30, getting to Quilotoa that night would have been more than doable. I walked around Chugchilán, which was another cute little Andean village community with a couple of shops and a couple of hostels. I bought an ice cream and swung in a hammock at the hostel reading my book.

As the afternoon passed by, people I had met the night before at Llullu Llama trickled in. It was quite cool how such a community had already formed, and sitting by the fire drying out our wet gear and drinking hot chocolate was definitely a lovely way to spend the evening. For $15, the hostel had given me a private room, which was pretty nice. However, I cannot recommend them, because something in the food did not sit right at all. Friends I later ran into again stayed at the Black Sheep Inn and said that it had the best cake they’d ever had in their lives (and a hot tub!)

Ecuador: Quilotoa Loop: pt.1: Sigchos to Isinlivi

And we were off!

The Quilotoa Loop is essentially a 2-4 day hike through the Andean mountains in the Cotopaxi region of Ecuador. It goes along tiny paths and through small communities, either ending or beginning at the Quilotoa Lagoon. It was one of the things I was most excited to do in Ecuador, and it did not disappoint. Parts of it is on roads, but for the most part, these are tiny trails with little signage. It’s incredibly remote and definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. (I say this as a girl who adores hiking though, so take that with a grain of salt!)

The previous night, I had met a guy from Montreal who was also planning to hike Quilotoa but wasn’t sure where he was starting. I hesitantly invited him along with me, apprehensive about hiking with a complete stranger–though I don’t generally have qualms travelling with people I’ve just met, I had been looking forward to my hike as a time to be completely alone. However, Kevin is super cool and walks at a reasonable speed, so I ended up really enjoying his company.

We took the 7AM bus out of Baños headed towards Quito via Latacunga ($2.50). It dropped us off in the middle of the highway, where we promptly got on a local bus heading into the city of Latacunga (about $0.50.) I was glad I’d asked directions at the hostel, because there were many buses departing from there and it was quite chaotic.

Most people start the Quilotoa loop in Isinlivi, but you can also start from Sigchos, which adds another 3-4 hours or another 15km/9.5 miles. I had a reservation at Llullu Llama for that night, but wanted to completely maximize the hiking, so I thought it was the best decision to add that day–and I’m glad I did.

I was travelling with only my daypack, but Kevin had a proper backpack. We went to the first hotel we saw and asked there if he could leave his pack. There were already two other packs, so obviously it was common, and they charged him $5 for three-four nights. If you have valuables, I wouldn’t recommend this since unlike the hostels I’d read about, they didn’t lock it up; however, they did assure us that someone was always at the reception desk and there would be no problem.

Poor Kevin was beginning to get a taste of my antsiness about time, and we sped walked the two blocks to the station, managing to catch the 9:30 bus to Sigchos with more than a handful of minutes to spare. (This blog had accurate bus times as of December!) This was another sketchy bus ride along windy mountain roads, which I don’t think I’ll ever have a taste of, and I was quite glad to get off finally in the tiny, tiny town of Sigchos.

We walked around for a bit, but at just before noon, not much was open. We ate lunch at a small restaurant and set off out of town at just about 12:30PM. It was misty out but the green valley to our left was vibrant and stunning, and I quickly felt my hiker’s high coming on. Though I hadn’t experienced any elevation sickness prior, I did comment at one point to Kevin on how heavy my breathing was for how normal of a pace we were walking at!

For a while, we were doing pretty well. I had been sent instructions for the day from Llullu Llama over WhatsApp, so we were following those in conjunction with Maps.Me on my phone, but of course, I grew cocky and as soon as I stopped checking it every two minutes, we missed a tiny turnoff and came to a junction. I had a feeling something wasn’t right since we were off the map, but we decided to continue forward, only to run into a farmer a few minutes later. He looked hesitant, so I greeted him brightly, and he was kind of like “Uh, are you going to Isinlivi? ‘Cause you’re going the wrong way.” He explained to us the turn-off we had missed, and I repeated what he said to ensure I was comprehending.

It turned out that on my directions from the hostel had even a picture of this turn off, so once we had our eyes peeled, we quickly found it and trotted off downhill into the canyon. We walked in circles around a farm for a while, thinking that we had missed a turn off when we hadn’t, and then after finding that turn off, promptly walked in the wrong direction until another friendly farmer asked us where we wanted to go and informed us we weren’t on the path.

Once we started going uphill, it started pouring, so I was quickly soaked with sweat underneath my raincoat and rain on top! It was warm enough not to be miserable though, and once we made it to the top of the other side of the canyon, we hit the road and knew we were close to Isinlivi.

Isinlivi was celebrating a festival of some sort that had people out under the rain and a full mariachi band playing for a few people to dance to. There were blow-up jump houses, ping pong tables under cover, and a giant ring where bull fights were going on, something that was intriguing to watch but that I also found very sad–the poor bulls were having no fun whatsoever, and didn’t want to be out in the muddy rain. Poor bulls.

Every travel blog out there says amazing things about Llullu Llama, and for good reason. I don’t think it was the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in, but it was definitely lovely and in an absolutely gorgeous location. I had booked ahead of time, and they upgraded me to a super-simple room which was essentially half-dorm and half-private, with three walls and a curtain–really, the ideal hostel situation for me. The food was decent and they had an endless supply of tea, which I liked. What surprised me was that many of the people we met that night would be travelling with us for the next two.

  

Ecuador: Christmas in Baños

I vaguely thought about going up to La Casa del Arbol for the sunrise, but no bus goes that early, the hike is apparently three hours up, and a taxi $10, all of which were good excuses for my sleep deprived self to stay in bed. 

Graham and I met at a cafe and walked to the bus stop. I hadn’t quite realised that the decrease in elevation would mean that it would all of a sudden be hot, so I was steadily losing layers as the day went on, and sitting on the bus for ten minutes before it departed was painful. $1 took us the entire way to La Casa del Arbol, though I wasn’t super excited to be on another large bus going around sharp curves!

There were actually multiple swings at the top. This was, after the Quilotoa Loop, the thing I was most excited to see in Ecuador, and it didn’t disappoint. There was a line for the photogenic one, which we waited in. This was also the one time I actually cared about getting a photo of myself, so I was glad to have made extra friends on the bus who were happy to oblige me.

The other swings were really just as magical, if not as photogenic–the experience of soaring hundreds of feet above the forest with my feet pointing straight towards mist was outstanding. I don’t think I’ll ever feel as close to flying. I could have spent a few hours up there happily, but the buses only came at 1 or 4, so we took the earlier one.

We all split up for lunch with plans to meet back at the Bridge. I capitalise that bridge since it merits it! I, of course, found a chocolate cafe where I had a tostado con jamon y queso and more hot chocolate, and happily read my book for a while. With a little bit of remaining time, I saw all I really needed to see of the town of Baños. There are lots of candy makers pulling taffy, which was quite excellent to watch, and a lovely old church.

Regrouping at the bridge, there was a lot of nervous energy between the four of us. We linked up with a group from my hostel as well. For $20, three Ecuadorian men were gearing people up and essentially throwing them off the bridge. I wanted to see someone else go before I did to be sure what I was getting myself into. It wasn’t bungee jumping, apparently, since the swinging was like a pendulum.

My friend went in front of me, and I wanted to get it over and done with, so I handed my friend my backpack and stepped on up. I didn’t think it was much scarier than cliff jumping, but I knew that I always have trouble with the initial leap, so I think I was more scared of being scared and not moving than of actually falling. The guide did some trust falls to show me that I just needed to fall, and then pulled me up onto the railing.

Standing up on that tiny ledge with the wind blowing madly, I felt like I would be blown away. I asked if I should jump or fall, and he shrugged at me–I could do whichever I wanted. I decided I would jump. So on three, I bent my legs and prepared–just to be pushed a second before I actually had the momentum going. As such, I whipped my neck at a weird angle, and was more concerned about righting myself than falling during the initial descent.

Swinging back and forth there wasn’t as fun as the swing, but was still massively cool, and I enjoyed being gently lowered to the ground before a pretty steep climb back up to remove my gear.

We had become invested in the group of other people from my hostel, and ended up spending almost two hours at the bridge coercing them all into taking their turn. It was a fun sense of camaraderie, to be encouraging people to do something that defies natural instincts. I think one girl who took at least half an hour and almost gave up was the most brave of us all; it wasn’t particularly brave of me to jump because I wasn’t very scared, but she had real guts.

I had dinner with two of the girls at a little cafe that served delicious empanadas. A girl who was about four years old brought us our menus and our cheque, and I was delighted to tip her in coins and lollies from my stash of New Zealand Fruit Bursts.

There are baths in Baños–hence the name–but I hadn’t brought a swimsuit with me (or, for that matter, even a bra) and I didn’t want to go enough to borrow someone else’s. Instead, I spent an evening playing card games, and made a friend who would travel with me the next few days. By 10pm, I was grumpy and tired, so I declined all invitations to socialise and went straight to bed!

It didn’t feel like Christmas. Not one single bit. It could have been any other day. But it was a really lovely day nonetheless.

I wish I had had more time in Baños! It was a glorious area, and I would have loved to go canyoning or to further explore the nearby mountains. Next time!

Ecuador: Christmas Eve on Cotopaxi

Bright and early, 7AM found me waiting next to a park for a bus to pick me up. The tour I had booked through Community Hostel was $55, which I don’t recommend if you’re hardcore on a budget, but seemed to be a good option for me given the amount of time I had and my complete lack of knowledge about the region. If I had more time, I’d have liked to have summitted Cotopaxi, but I hear that you need a private guide, at least $150, and a night, so it wasn’t in the books for me. Maybe someday.

There were twenty of us on this tour, which was the only thing I didn’t appreciate–altitude doesn’t hit me terribly and I’m pretty good at pressing on (if I say so myself) so I found myself at the start of the pack rearing to keep going every time we stopped to allow everyone to catch up. The people on the tour, however, were lovely, and I enjoyed getting to know quite a few of them. Because it’s a small world, graduated from the same high school I did, so it was a lot of fun talking to someone who inherently knew a grand section of my life.

After stopping for breakfast and later at a little store obviously run by friends of the guides, we drove into Cotopaxi National Park and quite a bit of the way up the volcano itself before parking. I was absolutely terrified during this drive around tight bends along harsh gravel and though I rationally knew we would not go toppling over, I had to consciously distract myself. Despite how freezing it was outside, I was excited to exit the van and spin around outside in the brisk air.

The refuge at 4,800 meters reminded me a lot of that in the High Tatras (wow, I still haven’t written that post from March…oops!) except it was far less awful to get to. I was definitely out of breath, but I didn’t feel like it was too strenuous of a journey, really. The refuge offered hot drinks and bathrooms, and we left some of our group there to recuperate while we went further up.

I had not realised that there is a glacier capping this volcano, and I was quite excited to learn this. (Glaciers move! That’s a moving volcano we’ve got! No? Not exciting? Never mind.) I was less excited when we came to it and hit a lot of snow. Snow is lovely to play in, less so to hike in. We didn’t stay up there very long since most of us were quite cold. I was glad that I had brought my gloves with me.

Descending reminded me a lot of Shangri La–a huge scree field that presented many opportunities to fall. After placing bets with new German friends on how many times I would fall, I attempted to ski/run down, and, for once in my life, managed to stay upright and have a lot of fun. I’m not saying that I’m going to like going down in the future, but that was definitely entertaining.

After driving a bit down the mountain, we stopped again to unpack the bikes that had been riding on the roof. Our guides gave a huge lecture about how dangerous it was and how we should only ride if we had previous experience biking. They then asked how many people were planning on riding, and almost everyone raised their hands.

I felt super apprehensive, but wanted to try it. The last time I mountain biked was when I was eleven and I had an excellent experience falling head first over my handlebars after pressing the wrong brake. I biked a lot in Zion, but that was on a road, not a mountain. Still, I wanted to give it a try, and try I did–I made it about a quarter of a kilometer before deciding that I’d had my fun and I was done. Most people who biked had a lot of fun, but I didn’t like how little control I was having, so I bailed.

The bottom presented a gorgeous lake. What does Ema do around gorgeous lakes? She gets really excited, and skip-runs towards them and… falls on flat ground. But of course, it wouldn’t be a trip without a hole in my knee now, would it?

We stopped part of the way back to Quito and had dinner again. The tour was to return to Quito, but I’d asked ahead of time for them to leave me on the road where the bus to Baños would stop–thankfully, this was right outside the restaurant. I’d waited perhaps ten minutes when one of the tour guides, Miguel, came along in his truck. He told me that he’d drive me further down the road to where I was more likely to have a bus stop for me–it seems that bus stops are created by people simply standing at the road and willing the buses to appear, so if there were more people, I’d be picked up faster.

This was very sweet of him, and we conversed mainly in Spanish about life–his mother had died a month prior and he had moved home to care for her, so he wasn’t in the greatest spot. He was kind enough to then wait for the bus with me and to tell the driver to ensure that I got off in Baños. I felt quite sad pressing a coin into his hand as we said goodbye–he had no one to spend Christmas Eve with, and I felt like with his kindness, he deserved something more special. I hope he’s well.

Regardless, I was on my way to Baños! I watched the sunset through the windows and felt exhilarated. When I arrived at my hostel and connected to WiFi, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Irish friend had also made his way to the town that day, so we went out for a drink together. Christmas Eve is apparently a time for partying, and it was delightful to see so many happy people in the streets! It was even more delightful to return to my hostel and to have them coerce my tired bones into eating chocolate cake and drinking some sort of delicious chocolate liqueur! But I was quite happy to finally collapse into bed.

 

Ecuador: Mindo and the Cloud Forest

Taking some of the chocolate bars I’d purchased the previous day with me for breakfast, I took a cab first thing on Saturday morning to La Ofelia, the northern bus terminal, which cost me $7. I should have taken good ol’ public transit, but I was concerned about time–I’d heard that there was a 9:10 bus that I wanted to catch.

From La Ofelia, the Flor de Valle bus company charged me $3 for a one way ticket to Mindo. Delightful! This was the one bus I went on that had assigned seats (and of course, the first bus, leading to my perpetual confusion about where to sit for the rest of my time in Ecuador) and the entire bus was full. When I arrived in Mindo, I immediately bought a return ticket for the last bus at 5PM because I didn’t want to end up stuck.

I went to the nearest tour company, which was a bad idea. Though the prices were the same as elsewhere, they weren’t the most accomodating. I booked my zipline tour for $20 just to have him tell me I had to take a $4 taxi down to the location. I wasn’t about that life, and three other people were talking to the other employee, so I asked if I could join them. Of course, he said. Of course.

These three people were unfortunately possibly the most stand-offish people I’d encountered. They reluctantly told me they were from Venezuela, but barely talked in my presence–perhaps they were offended that I was saving them a dollar on their taxi.

The taxi driver took us past a ziplining place, which I found strange but decided not to question. He knew best, right? At the end of the road, he dropped us off with a wave. We all presented our tickets to the guide there, and he sent us off in a tiny little car on a zipline across the forest. Though this wasn’t what I was expecting, I again assumed that they knew best. But as soon as we got to the other end, the man who greeted us told me that I had to go back and take my ticket. I looked at him, confused, because the other three hadn’t retained their tickets. This led to one of the others trying to explain this to me in very broken English, and I thought to myself “My Spanish is fine, that’s why I was trying to converse with you in it.”

I decided to continue not asking questions, and took the lovely ride back across the forest canopy to the beginning, where the man quite rudely told me I had given him a ticket for zipling. I told him that yes, I wanted to go ziplining, something more exhilarating than his simple canopy chair. Turns out I had a ticket for a different place, which he hadn’t thought to explain to me when I gave him the ticket. Instead, he tried to charge me $2 for taking his little canopy ride, and I refused. He quite rudely told me I could walk up to the zipline place (a good two miles at that point). Since I had paid for a taxi to take me to the ziplining place, I was quite annoyed at this point. A taxi then pulled up, and I left the canopy tour people behind in a grump. The taxi driver then tried to charge me $2, but I explained the situation and told him quite indignantly that I would pay $1 or I would be happy to walk. He took my dollar.

Once I finally arrived at the zipling place, I had a delightful experience. Cristian and Mateo took excellent care (with a side of flirting) of me and I had my own private tour through eight different ziplines. Soaring high over the lush green forest below me with clouds off in the horizon was an absolutely magical experience. The feeling of weightlessness, of air rushing around, was glorious.

I tipped them well and set off walking towards the butterfly farm–I wasn’t about to deal with taxi drivers again. This stubbornness probably wasn’t the greatest idea, but it was only about three miles and everything in the Mindo area is gorgeous. About ten minutes in, I encountered three stray dogs, who all decided to adopt me and walk alongside me. When we walked by a man, they barked at him to keep me safe, but they were polite to the various children we passed. Kind dogs. It started pouring halfway through, and I felt sad that I only had one rain jacket.

At Mariposas de Mindo, the butterfly farm, they told me that the butterflies weren’t out and I should come back another day. It was raining and it was afternoon, the kind lady explained, and the butterflies were out most prominently during the day. I told her that I only had a few hours in Mindo, and that I was sure that even if I didn’t see any butterflies, they’d use my money well, so she took my $7.50 and I entered.

And wow, was it worth it! I had a lot of fun taking a million photos of the butterflies. It seemed like there was a lot when I was there, which I think speaks wonders to how many there would be at other times. They had plates of banana and mango out, so I picked a little with my hand and coerced a butterfly onto my finger. ¡Que bella!

I walked back to town and to El Quetzal de Mindo, where I booked the 4PM chocolate making tour. With almost an hour to spare, I went looking for food and found more of my beloved maduros asados along side some grilled corn, and happily ate a belated lunch.

I was in luck again and had another private tour, which wasn’t particularly informative but was very sweet, and I loved how Jorge, my guide, seemed so proud of the region and the delightful chocolate they produced. At the end, I got to sample lots, which made me extremely happy! I was most impressed by cacao tea made from the shells of beans, and ohmygosh, that was definitely the best brownie I ever ate in my life.

Though the tour is normally longer, since it was just me, it finished a bit early, and I had a bit of time to use their WiFi to talk to my mum before heading back to the bus. Though I couldn’t send her chocolate via the phone line, it was a great way to finish off the day.

Back in Quito, I headed over to Community Hostel to book a tour. There, I was offered wine and somehow got roped into the beginning of a pub crawl–I do recommend visiting!

Ecuador: Quito: Truffles, Tours, and the Telefériqo

I woke up early on my first full day in Quito–I had a truffle tour to attend! I wandered around for a little, finally being decisive and picking a cafe, where I had a jamon y queso sandwich and hot chocolate for breakfast and chatted with a teenage girl, who sat next to me at the only table to eat her croissant.

At the Pacari shop, for $10 I got my own private truffle making demonstration, which was absolutely delightful. I only spoke Spanish while asking about and paying for the tour, so Cristian spoke to me entirely in Spanish, and I understood a good 85% of what he was saying, which was really cool. At the end, I learned that he gives tours in English, too…well. We used blackberry jam to keep the truffles together and put all sorts of things from goldenberries to spicy cayenne in them.

After some more wandering, I gained direction and headed up to Basilica del Voto Nacional, the giant gothic cathedral that had been looming over me. For $2, I went in the front and started climbing. There was a quite rickety bridge that was more than a little sketchy and some steep ladders, but the view from the top staring out over Quito was exhilarating.

I found an English language book store and chatted away with the owner for a while, curious but saddened to find that he had the only remaining store, and often received boxes of books from people that had used to have their own stores. For lunch, I found a menu del día with cerviche that wasn’t quite as delicious as I’d expected and a vegetable soup that was far better than I looked, all for $2.50.

The Community Hostel offers free walking tours most days, and I hopped on the 2PM one, which was led by a lovely Ecuadorian lady who took us through the central market and through a lot of the centro historico that I had walked through, except with far more context. I’d definitely recommend this as a base point to garner some understanding of Quito’s history, and I was very intrigued by her perspective on the economy and I learned a lot about their previous presidents and politics. The tour went until about 5:30, far longer than I’d expected.

An Irish guy on the tour with excellent music taste agreed to head up to the telefériqo with me to try and catch the sunset. We paid about $10 for a taxi (metered), which seemed to be too much, but I followed his route on the map and it seemed efficient. The tickets up were $8 a person, but I love me my gondolas, so I was okay with the biggest expense of the trip so far, and the view was absolutely incredible.

We hung out at la Ronda during the evening, finding a bar that was celebrating 70s metal, it seemed. I loved the atmosphere of the area, with lots of lively people around and all looking exhilarated to be alive. 

Ecuador: Quito: a walking impression

My first day in Quito I spent trying to create the biggest blister possible on my little toe (photo available upon request) by walking the city from top to bottom–literally.

I flew in around noon and was a grumpy mess of tired and hungry, so I paid $6 for a shuttle bus to take me to the northern bus terminal. Coulda shoulda taken public transit, but I was feeling insecure and didn’t want to deal with getting lost. This put me as promised a good 6 miles out from my hostel, a promised $7 taxi ride, so what more was there to do but to eye the line of taxi drivers, smiling with open arms, and turn on my heel and decide to walk?

This was a good idea as I otherwise wouldn’t have seen most of the north side of the city. It’s not where the tourists go, really, and I walked through a lot of industrial buildings and more residential areas. Along the way I stopped and ate salchipapas ($1)–this is basically a dish for kids (so obviously delicious) where they give you a dish of french fries and then pile random meat on top, and sometimes an egg. I enjoyed the chance to converse with the cook, whose mother owned the little shop.

I found a book store and perused for quite a while, fascinated by the translations of some of my favourite books and the covers they had. I sat at El Ejido park for quite a while–this turned out to be my favourite place in Quito and was definitely the best place to watch people–children at play, abuelas fussing over them, teenagers up to mischief, and adults relaxing.

It was almost four by the time I made it to my hostel, having stopped extensively to take photos and to stroke stray dogs. To my absolute surprise, I had booked myself a private room for $9.50 a night. I was incredibly thankful to past Ema–this was one of the two nights I’d booked ahead, but I had assumed I’d be in a dorm of twelve as per normal. My hostel wasn’t of note though, and I later found cheaper private rooms in better locations.

After showering and putting a plaster on my miserable pinky toe, I set out to explore the old town as night started falling. I found a street vendor selling maduros asados, which are essentially grilled plantains. She added cheese, and for $0.75, I had a delectable dinner–these would become the staple of my Ecuadorian diet because they’re so darn good.

I later had hot chocolate, thick, creamy, delectable hot chocolate at Plaza de los Conceptas and sat and read my book until finally, exhausted, heading back to bed. 

 

Bryce Canyon National Park: 2017 road trip, pt. 10

From a small hotel in the middle of nowehere, Utah, we went to Bryce Canyon, which felt like such an afterthought. All summer in Zion, people told me about how they were either going to or coming from Bryce, and I felt a little bit like an imposter perpetually saying “yeah, I’ve actually never been to this place even though I live here in Zion.” I also had perpetually had a kind of competition going on in my head with Bryce, so it was a little bit validating to see with my own eyes that Zion was far superior…ha! Despite this, Bryce was pretty darn stunning, and far closer to being as cool as Zion as I’d ever given it credit for.
We took the shuttle in and did a small hike. There’s less to do than in Zion so I wouldn’t enjoy working there, but I would enjoy sitting and staring out at those hoodoos for a lot more time–wow, Bryce, you’ve sure got some wonders.

It’s honestly quite strange to be writing these road trip posts nine months after they happened–shout out to procrastination and lack of motivation and a half-hearted attempt to write text to accompany the photos. Nathan and I broke up six months ago now, and I feel almost intrusive writing about a time when we were together while now we are living lives that could hardly be more separate. The trip was far from hunky-dory, and I think we were in very different states of mind at that point. Still, I’m so glad that we did that trip–before, I hadn’t really roadtripped for more than a day with anyone other than my family, and there were so many places I was excited to see. I definitely learned in the planning just how vast the United States is–I was pretty darn heartbroken to have to cut Yellowstone out of the itinerary–and I wished at every location that we had more time. Shout out to Nathan for putting up with me all that time!
This trip definitely spurred a desire in me to do another road trip, and I hope to sometime convince someone I’m an excellent driver (false) and go on another adventure. There are still a lot of national parks on my list, and I’m definitely going to get to more.

Zion National Park: 2017 roadtrip pt. 9

Zion!!!! I was so so so excited to be back in Zion!
We had stayed at a campground an hour or so away, and I was super jumpy and excited to get into the park, to another one of those beautiful places I’m privileged enough to have called home.
It was SO. WEIRD. being back. Really. Honestly. SO SO WEIRD. I don’t think I’d ever had such a surreal experience as getting off the shuttle at the lodge and walking into the gift store. So much was the same, yet everything had changed.
My friend Eric was standing at his register right where he used to be, so I caught up with him, and then with Karen, one of my old bosses. I got to meet a couple of the employees that were there then and again, it was so very extremely strange.
Some employees were kind enough to share with me a parking pass, which meant that we could come back that evening and drive into the lodge once the shuttles had stoppd running. What would a trip to Zion be without a night hike of Angel’s Landing? Or rather, I had ZERO desire to hike Angel’s Landing during the day with all of the people around.
We took the shuttle through the whole park, walked the first mile of the Narrows to where it gets all wet and rivery, and checked out Weeping Wall. I’d never really had an opportunity to “take someone home” so I was exhilarated by getting to show Nathan all of these places that I loved and admired.
After a super nice dinner in Springdale, we headed back to Zion in the car, parking at the lodge. We hiked Angel’s Landing to Scout’s lookout, which was always as far as I wanted to go when I used to do that thrice a week at night.

I’m getting really confused about the timeline here (perhaps I should write posts sooner than 9 months after they happen, huh?) but the next day we were getting on the shuttle to go back into the canyon and I saw a girl wearing a shirt with the logo of a college near mine. Thoughts flashed through my head: “huh, what are the odds?” Then I remembered my friend Julia who had gone to school in Maryland and had studied abroad in Morocco with me. Then I gasped–it was her! We quickly made plans to catch up further the next day before Nathan and I headed north.
We hiked the Watchman that day, which I really enjoyed. Though the heat was overwhelming, there weren’t too many people and the views were stunning as ever.

Zion, I love you! I likely wouldn’t work there again since I’ve already done so much of it, but gosh, that place holds such a huge chunk of my heart, and I really have nothing but fantastic memories there.

Horseshoe Bend & Lake Powell: 2017 roadtrip pt. 8.5

From Antelope Canyon, we drove ten minutes over to the parking lot for Horseshoe Bend. It was about a half mile hike from the parking lot, but it absolutely SUCKED–I hate hiking in sand and I hate hiking in the heat and guess what? It was really sandy and really hot! And I was pretty underwhelmed by Horseshoe Bend. Really, we should have gone there first so we could have been impressed because nothing was going to impress me after photographic Antelope Canyon. I didn’t even get a picture of the entirety of Horseshoe Bend.
From there, we went up to Lake Powell. We didn’t end up going out to the lake and swimming or anything because we were worried about time, but it was certainly quite pretty from afar.
I was so excited, because next stop was Zion!
But first, I convinced Nathan that it was worth taking the scenic route to go by Jacob’s Lake on the way to the North Rim. The cookies there are absolutely phenomenal.
We thought it would be a nice spot to camp there in the national forest, contemplated it for a bit, decided to do it, drove five minutes back, and were just in time to watch someone else take the last camp site. Darn!
So onwards back to Utah it was. Utah, and Zion, my beloved.

Antelope Canyon: 2017 roadtrip pt. 8

Of everywhere we were going on the trip, I was most excited to go to Antelope Canyon. All of the photos I had seen were simply stunning, and I was so gosh darn excited to see it in person. And since I had finally invested in a nice camera after using my beaten up six-year-old phone for, well, six years, it was really exciting to test it out on someplace magical.
Of course, things didn’t go as planned. I hadn’t been able to find any concrete information online other than that tours were expensive, and we hadn’t known exactly what day we would get in, so I hadn’t booked anything ahead of time.
We drove into Page and I went and checked out two tour companies. Both were completely booked up. Fine, I thought. We’d go directly to the canyon and try it out anyway.
I’d read that Lower Antelope Canyon was almost as pretty as Upper and wasn’t as expensive, so we went there and parked. There were tours running every twenty minutes or so, and there were spaces in the one happening in 20 minutes. It was $30 a head, which seemed reasonable compared to the tours out of Page. We sat and boiled for a while and then went on over.
Our guide was super cool and despite having to wait outside in the heat for a good hour or so, I was curious to hear more about how the area had been experiencing a boom of tourism.
SO fun fact: the canyon itself is not the most spectacular thing ever! But the photos are! A French tourist commented to me that the Grand Canyon was way better in person than the photos, but Antelope was vice versa, and I had to agree. I was that tourist I normally hate who was more intrigued by her camera than her surroundings. But I’m so very glad I finally made it here after having stared at the photos on post cards all summer two years prior in Zion.

Grand Canyon National Park: 2017 roadtrip pt. 7

From Moab, Utah, we were heading south out of Utah and into Arizone to see the Grand Canyon (the big one, not the Yellowstone one, sigh!) Driving had become significantly less fun since we were now in the hot awful desert, but I had determined that if I was driving I got to pick the music and I found out that I know every single word to Cats: the Musical off by heart.
We got to the Grand Canyon relatively early in the evening and still had a ways to drive to get to Page, AZ, where we were planning to stay the night. We were driving out as the sun was beginning to set and I was trying to cause peace by not expressing how badly I wanted to watch it set, but Nathan was sweet enough to offer to have us stop, and wow! I’m so so glad we did, because let me tell you, the Grand Canyon is like ten times cooler when it’s setting. I think it’s a place that isn’t as cool in photos as it is in reality because photos can’t convey just how vast it is. The colours especially were so glorious, almost overwhelmingly so, and it was a magical experience.

Arches National Park: 2017 roadtrip, pt. 6

So I had this naive notion that perhaps we’d wake up and go watch the sunrise at Delicate Arch. Nathan is smarter than me and vetoed that one pretty quickly. We still made fairly good time out of our campsite and got into Arches early in the morning. What I hadn’t considered was that it was, gulp, Memorial Day, and that of course meant that everyone and their two dogs was out hiking. (Which is great! Get outside! Not so great for a spoiled Ema who’s used to having entire trails to herself.)

Arches was honestly kind of miserable to hike in, just super dry and sooooo so so so hot with no relief and no shade and people everywhere. I’d like to go in the off season and do some of the less popular hikes and take time to examine every single super cool standing rock formation, because I think it has a lot of merit. Ultimately though, I felt like it had all of the bad parts of hiking in Utah and none of the good parts.

Canyonlands National Park: Road trip, pt. 5

Saying bye to Miranda was hard, but next up was Denver–we drove quickly through merely to have brunch with my adored friends Lizzie and Jamil. I really wish we’d had time to let them show us around, but it was so excellent to see them–even though it had only been a week since the three of us had graduated, it already felt like we were living separate lives. And from there, we headed out of Colorado.

Canyonlands, the US’s most underrated park! No, actually, it’s astounding how many people go to Arches but not to Canyonlands, even though it’s literally right there! It was probably the park I was most excited to see, partially because I have a thing for places with “canyon” in the name (perhaps like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone? Hmm.) There was no time (sigh) to hike into the valley at all, but driving through there was one of the prettiest drives of my entire life–the whole entire region of Moab is just so darn stunning and again my jaw simply dropped while I was there.
We were driving back as the sunset, and Nathan let me pull over so I could stare and take photos. Canyonlands, you are astounding! Breathtaking! Marvellous! Wow!

Rocky Mountain National Park: 2017 roadtrip, pt. 4

From Wyoming, we spent a little bit of time in Steamboat Springs. This was a cute little ski resort town that would be a relaxing place to hang out in during summer, and we found a cafe that we really liked. My good friend from college, Miranda, was there for the night, so we hung out with her, went to a bar, and had a brief taste of ski-bum in summer life. We ended up sleeping in a pull-off somewhere in the heart of Colorado.
I drove to Boulder the next day and was massively intimidated by the traffic in the mountains around Denver. Somehow I took zero photos of Boulder or of Steamboat Springs, but I absolutely adored Boulder–it isn’t somewhere I can see myself living, but it’s set amongst some absolutely stunning mountains and we walked down a main street that was cut off from cars. And there was a dispensary, of course!
From there, we drove up to Estes, outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, to stay with Miranda. I daresay I can take a lot of credit for her applying to work out there, so I was really happy to see her in that element, and it was so much fun to hang out with her and catch up.
This also allowed us some time to really hike up in the mountains! We didn’t do anything super strenuous, but I definitely got very puffed very quickly! I’m writing this way too late, but we’re pretty sure that it was Lily Mountain that the pretty views here are from.
This was one of my favourite parts of the trip, and it was really hard to say goodbye to Miranda again.

Devil’s Tower National Monument: 2017 roadtrip, pt. 3

From the Badlands, we made a perfunctory stop at Mt. Rushmore as Nathan hadn’t been (and since he’s American, I felt it more vital for him!) From there, we went to Crazy Horse mainly because I wanted to eat the fry bread there which I remembered as being absolutely incredible.
The real treat of the day was Devil’s Tower, which we had been tempted to cut off to save time. I’m so glad we went–I was so excited to enter Wyoming again, since Wyoming is the home of Yellowstone, but I was kind of expecting Devil’s Tower to be another place that we would drive up to, take a few photos of, and leave, but we hiked around it and it was a splendid time. The views were incredible, and I couldn’t stop going “Wow! Wow! Look! Wow!” at the tower itself–it’s insane! There were people climbing too, which I thought looked like fun.
Beginning to drive down south, I was absolutely astounded, and my jaw kept dropping open as I stared out at the vast expanse of fields and the incredible clouds and the road stretching on for miles.

Badlands National Park: 2017 roadtrip, pt. 2

From Edwardsville, we drove up to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where we hung out with Nathan’s dad for some time. From there, it was what seemed to be biggest stretch of drive and (surprisingly) probably my favourite. We had eight hours of terrain to cover through to the west side of North Dakota, but it was all so sprawling and beautiful.
Badlands National Park will never cease to amaze me, and camping there was an incredible experience. We did a brief hike before finding a campsite, and I convinced poor Nathan that waking up early to see the sunrise was an excellent idea–and it was! Though the campsite probably wasn’t the ideal location, there is something so endlessly astounding about the rock formations out there amongst the prairies that stretch on forever.

St. Louis: 2017 roadtrip pt. 1

And we were off!
Nathan, who I was dating at the time, was going to be working in Glacier summer ’17, and I was going to be spending the summer (ha!) in New York City. He drove down for my graduation from school in Maryland, and I acoompanied him all the way through Salt Lake City, from which I flew to NYC.
The first day was probably the harshest, and I had to appreciate Nathan, who had driven multiple times from Illinois to visit me throughout the previous year. I was in a really weird state–I wasn’t sure when I’d next see my parents, and I’d just left behind a really huge chapter of my life. I knew I was going from seeing many close friends everyday to starting all over from scratch, and I was honestly pretty emotional. Still, I was excited to practice my abismal driving.
We stayed with Nathan’s lovely friends (shoutout to Bridget and Jared for being phenomenal!) in Edwardsville our first night.
Our first major destination was St. Louis, where we had a delicious brunch at one of Nathan’s favourite cafes, went up the arch, and visited the zoo. I’d never been, and I was super psyched to explore even though I had no idea what the city had to offer.
It was quite a brief trip through, but I inherently liked St. Louis. It felt friendly and modern, but not overly so. Nathan and I both loved the elephants at the zoo!