My long-distance boyfriend, Matt, came to visit and ring in the new year with me. It was his first time ever in South America, and I was determined to show him as much of the country as possible during his trip. He was coming for just over two weeks, but I balanced out our itinerary so we could spend half of it just relaxing at my site, spending time in my typical routine – going to work, hosting clubs, running on forest service roads, shopping at the market and sharing dinner with my host family.
To kick off our travels, I picked out an Airbnb apartment inside a beautiful colonial building overlooking Ecuador’s famous basilica. The sites were gorgeous outside, but between with the rainy weather and catching up after seven months apart we spent most of our time cozied up inside playing cuarenta, Ecuador’s national card game and cooking together in the clean, modern kitchen (a heavenly sight for a campo volunteer like me). I love wandering through the winding streets of Quito’s Centro Historico, and had the opportunity to check out several new museums – my favorite being the Contemporary Art Museum of Quito, housed in the colonial hospital.
Our next stop was Salinas, known across Ecuador for the country’s biggest New Year’s Eve celebration. As the clock neared midnight, the beach was packed full of Ecuadorian families dressed all in white – a tradition that helps start the new year on a clean slate – with fireworks and Frozen-style paper lanterns lighting the air, and music everywhere. When the clock struck midnight, huge bonfires filled with años viejos, piñata-like figures representing their favorite – or least favorite – images from the previous year were lit, sending sparks everywhere due to the fireworks mischievous revelers had snuck into the center of the pile. We spent New Year’s Day recovering with a traditional hangover breakfast of encobollado, or fish soup, long hours spent relaxing and reading, and a long walk to the Western-most point of Ecuador, la Chocoletera, to take a dip in the warm ocean with the sunset surrounding us on an empty beach. It was a magical way to start off 2018.
January 2nd; however, was not so beautiful – the bus terminals were a disaster, with everyone heading home from the holidays. All the buses we wanted were sold out, so we made a game-time change to our itinerary, and thanks to the help of a friendly nun, were able to find a night bus heading towards Baños, a popular tourist town in the halfway point of Salinas and my site. We found ourself with an unexpected 12 hour “layover” in Guayaquil, which we spent strolling the malecon, exploring the revitalized neighborhood of Las Pinas, and checking out the dozens of iguanas lolling in the central city square. In Baños, we took a tour through their route of waterfalls and spent a few hours playing cuarenta in a cute coffeeshop.
When we did make it back to my site, it was just in time to welcome a group of other Peace Corps volunteers to my community, all of whom were also visiting me for the first time. We were hoping to tackle the rapids of the Amazon River with a long day of white water rafting, but the early winter rains meant that the river was moving too fast, and we would need a Plan B. Luckily for me, Plan B turned out to be an El Chaco activity that I’d always wanted to do but had not yet had the opportunity for – Cueva de los Tayos. The Tayo birds, or Oil Birds, have a different famous location in southern Ecuador, an expedition that requires several days of hiking into the deep cloud forest, and was once believed to hold exquisite golden treasures – think the Genie’s cave in Aladdin. The treasures were never found but you can watch a recent documentary about their search for them featuring Neil Armstrong. This cavern is smaller, but fascinating nevertheless. The two hour hike involved going down a deep cavern, fording the river and walking through a stream to arrive at a split in the mountain where the river had worn through over time, creating a walkable cave leading to through to the opposite side of the mountain. It was gorgeous, and when any of you come visit I’ll be sure to take you along the same trail.
After the weekend adventures, we started to settle back into my relaxed routine here in El Chaco. While I was work, Matt hung back with my kitten, Mayu, and read Pillars of the Earth, made lunch, or worked out. Having some semblance of a routine was the perfect way to end the trip, and spend some quality time together while giving him an insider’s look at my everyday Ecuadorian life.
And even better, I had the free time to play my entire way through Super Mario Odyssey on his Nintendo Switch.