QuitoWe started off in Quito, Ecuador, and the first night was a bit scary. When we landed and hopped in a taxi to get to the hotel, the taxi driver didn't seem to recognize the address and was bringing us around in a pretty sketchy looking area - poorly lit, muddy road, plus this was our first view of Ecuador - we hadn't yet gotten used to the stray dogs on the streets and poor communities. From all the pictures online, the hotel looked a lot better than what we might have found in the area he was driving us to. He stopped at a house of someone he knew, asked directions (we assume, we don't know Spanish very well), and luckily, eventually, he brought us to the right place.
It was a beautiful hotel ("Casa d'Campo Hotel Boutique"), but on the other side of the hotel property fence the city was all torn up and under construction. The hotel was pretty new; perhaps now the area around it is nice too. We had a pretty spacious cabin all to ourselves.
One of the hotel staff spoke English and I think she was around when we had breakfast the next morning, but either way, we had practiced saying "no huevos, no leche, no carne" etc. before we left. Most of our hotel breakfasts were toast, fruit, juice, tea, so pretty similar (limited) vegan options as we would find in American hotels.
Otavalo Craft Market
That morning we set out to see the famous craft market in Otavalo. We took a $27 taxi to Terminale Carcelen in Quito, and a $2/person, 2-hour bus ride from there to Otavalo. It was a little bit confusing (probably mostly b/c of the language difference) to find where to buy the bus tickets, and we were surprised to find out you had to buy toilet paper for the restrooms at the bus station - and they didn't even have toilet seats. Eventually we found the TP, found the tickets, and were on our way. There were people trying to sell snacks to us on the bus.
In Otavalo, we couldn't find most of the veg-friendly restaurants that Happy Cow had listed. We did find Buena Vista, which opened at 1:30pm (that was a bit late for us for lunch, but we couldn't find anywhere else around with vegan options). They had several vegan options including a veggie burger with avocado, baked potato with guacamole, smoothies, a hummus sandwich, and vegetarian pasta options. I had never thought to put guacamole on a baked potato, but it was really good! Not too expensive either. We spent $20 for 2 people, including tip, beer, fresh juice, and meals.
The craft market was pretty large, lots of pretty things. We're not that into buying pretty things just to have "stuff", but thought we should check it out anyway. We got a "taranjo" (sort of like a guitar) and a wooden flute for my boyfriend's musical sister.
Back in Quito for dinner, our choice restaurant was closed (it seemed that a lot of places are closed on Sunday nights in Quito), so we got some pasta at another restaurant - nothing special. The taxi driver bringing us back to our Casa d'Campo hotel had almost as hard of a time as the first. He made a lot of calls. We felt helpless to help or communicate with him, and could only point to the address we had on our itinerary.
River Boat Tour
The next morning we began our 5-day river boat tour adventure. Logistics were again a bit of an issue. We were supposed to meet a rep from the cruise at the Quito airport to fly to Coca, but we couldn't find the rep at first. We were told to wait at the check-in line for a specific airline, but didn't realize there were multiple check in lines in different areas of the airport. Once we found them, check-in and security went smoothly.
Once in Coca, we waited around to take a motorized canoe to the cruise boat. A very tame squirrel monkey who was surely fed by tourists in the area stopped by to say hello.
On the river boat tour, there were about 20 people, mostly older/retired-age. The whole group spent a lot of time in the motorized canoe exploring the rainforest along the river. We saw rainforest animals and learned about the local culture.
Our first excursion was to a native's house. We learned about hallucinogenic plants, birth control plants, saw limes, pineapple, and banana trees, and chickens that the family occasionally sold. We were told they hunt tapirs, monkeys, squirrels, and macaws. Traditional houses are elliptical shaped so that there are no corners for spirits and dirt to collect. Three generations, including ~8 children, typically live together in one small house. The guide told us that the oil companies in the area are ruining the local's culture. The government makes some attempts to help the indigenous people, but their efforts aren't very helpful: families prefer to live ~500 meters apart from one another, but the houses the government set up are all close together. In addition, the government houses have metal roofs which make them very hot inside (the natives thatch their roofs together from palm branches). As a result, a lot of the government-built houses aren't used.
One question that came up was, why, if they know of a plant with contraceptive effects, do they have so many children? The guide told us that families need a lot of children to collect food, but whenever a group is going to move to another area, they'll use birth control so that they don't have pregnant women and young children to protect when they may encounter enemies while relocating.
On other canoe rides and land excursions, we saw lots of birds, a tapir (which the guide hadn't seen in a year!), a caiman, bulldog bats, glow worms, pink dolphins which came up above the water just enough for some air, dusky titi monkeys, turtles, snowy egrets, herons, and leaf-carrying ants. We learned that the leaf-carrying ants chew up the leaves for compost to use to grow mushrooms, which are actually their main food source, not the leaves!
We found out that Amazonians consider dolphins like they do humans - it sounded like they believed in reincarnation and that dolphins may be former humans from their tribe, so they don't eat dolphins. Elsewhere in the world, people use dolphins for bait to catch catfish.
We visited a school, but unfortunately (or fortunately, if you don't like being around lots of children running around) the teacher wasn't there that day, so classes were canceled. There were only a handful of kids hanging around. The teachers were in another town getting oil for the generator and the school's "bus boat". Kids come from both sides of the river to this school, so the kids on the opposite side of the river need to be picked up by a bus boat.
My favorite outing on the river boat tour was a trip to a couple "Clay Lick" spots to see parrots eating clay. Some parrots have evolved to eat clay from a few specific areas because, well, it's a multi-step process: First parrots evolved to eat fruit before it was fully ripe, to get it before the other animals. The fruit plants in turn counteracted that by making toxins in their seeds and unripened fruit in "hopes" that the fruit would be eaten at an optimal time for the seeds to develop into new plants. The parrots then "discovered" that eating this clay helped to detoxify their bodies after eating the unripened fruit!
We saw lots of parrots and parakeets. At one of the clay lick spots, we watched as the birds flew from branch to branch, getting closer and closer to the clay area at the bottom of the forest. When some of them had just about made it all the way down to the clay, a big red macaw swooped in after them! It was a beautiful bird, I didn't get a chance to take a picture, but it scared all the smaller birds away.
Overall, the river boat tour was nice, friendly and knowledgeable guides, but I preferred our trip to Tanzania, where we saw a lot more animals up close. It's hard to see birds and monkeys hiding in the trees from a canoe in the river, but we probably got as good of a look at rainforest wildlife as we could have expected. I've heard of resorts where monkeys will come right up to the lodging areas, but (a) those are expensive, and (b) seeing tame monkeys fed by tourists isn't really the same as seeing animals how they are naturally in the wild.
Food and Cruise Logistics
It seemed that, despite our efforts before the trip to make sure the cruise knew that we were vegan and would provide vegan food for us, the message didn't make it through to the chefs. The first dinner I think they thought we were vegetarian or ate fish or something, but we clarified with them, and they were able to provide some rice-based dish with eggplant, vegetable soup, fruit, and a cucumber / tomato / apple salad. We gave them feedback, said we'd like soymilk at breakfast, more beans/protein-rich things at meals, etc., and they did pretty well to provide that for us. Most of the meals on the trip seemed gluten free, too. We had plantain patties, lots of fresh fruit, stir fried vegetables, rice, beans, manyoke, lentils, heart of palm, vegan empanadas, and more. Every time we came back from a canoe ride we were greeted with fresh juice and a snack.
The first night on the cruise, we didn't have sheets on our bed or clean towels. (We asked for some the next day and they provided them.) We would have also appreciated it if the cruise had been non-smoking, and if they had sent us a packing list - ponchos and flashlights would have been useful.
Quito & Pichincha Volcano Hike
Back in Quito after the tour, we ate at Quinua, an all-vegan restaurant where we each had a very nutritious lunch for $4.25. It included soup, veggies, potato/fake meat thing, and greens. For dinner we went to El Maple, an all-vegetarian restaurant with lots of vegan options including 3 types of seitan, tofu, hummus, soy cheese, and more.
The next morning we had arranged for a guide to pick us up at the hotel to hike up Pichincha Volcano. The elevation was hard on us at first - especially me with exercise-induced asthma and low-blood pressure. I had to stop every few feet it seemed, to get blood flowing back to my head, but we made progress up the volcano. It was very foggy and cold there - not much to see, even when we were at the top. I wouldn't recommend this hike. Lunch was also disappointing. We had told the company when booking that we were vegan, and what kind of foods we ate. They said they could accommodate us, but the guide just gave us some fruit and junk food for lunch.
We stayed on the beach near Montanita for the remainder of the trip, 18 days. To get there from Quito, we took a flight to Guayaquil, bus from Guayaquil to Olon, and taxi from Olon to our condo in San Jose. (The bus station was a bus station / shopping mall and we had one okay meal there, at Cajun Exotic Cuisine on the bottom floor.)
Our condo was very nice - huge for just the two of us - and just a short walk down to the beach. There were several condos on the property and a lounge area that overlooked the beach. Most of the time we were the only humans on the beach; often we were accompanied by the neighbors' dogs. The condo had a full kitchen, refrigerator, stove (no oven in the condo itself but I believe the owner said there was a stone oven on the property that we could use if we had wanted to), and internet access. The power went out three times, and it would have been nice to have screens on the windows to keep the bugs out. The condo did have air conditioning.
We spent our days relaxing, reading, walking on the beach, taking trips into nearby Montanita (~20 minute $0.50 bus ride from our condo) for restaurants and groceries. We had cable TV in the condo to watch some shows at night (found some of our favorite shows in English), and one night we went into town to check out the night life. (I think we got there too early; there wasn't much going on, but we sipped drinks by the ocean.) We saw lots of different critters on the beach, depending on the tides and the time of day: crabs, slugs/amoeba-type things, birds, sand dollars, and a (dead) puffer fish.
We took a day trip tour of Isla de la Plata, known as "Poor Man's Galapagos" and saw blue-footed boobies, dolphins, lizards, pelicans, masked boobies, tortoises, and lots of pretty, colorful fish on the snorkeling part of the tour. The tour was through Machalilla Tours, it was $45 per person and included lunch (we brought a couple PB&Js along instead and got a few dollars off the fee).
We thought we had see online something about a "regular" grocery stores / supermarket in Montanita, but it's a pretty small town and after walking around quite a bit, we saw no such thing. We got most of our food from little shops/stands on the streets. People had lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, big bags of rice, dried beans, etc. We also found pasta, bread, peanut butter (although I think we used the wrong phrase... my dictionary didn't have "peanut butter" so I looked up "peanut" and "butter" and the woman seemed to laugh a me a bit, so I'm guessing I got the point across, but didn't use the right word). We were asking the condo staff where to buy tofu and soymilk, and the owner offered to bring us some from Guayaquil. We ate lots of burritos with fresh made guacamole, lentil soup and lentil dishes, rice and beans, tortilla chips and guac, pasta, and LOTS of fresh fruit. The fruit was amazing. It was disappointing coming back to Wisconsin's imported, un-ripe, un-impressive fruits.
There were a couple somewhat vegan-friendly restaurants in Montanita. We ate at Tiki Limbo, which had falafel, hummus, Pad Thai with tofu (it wasn't very similar to regular Pad Thai, but it was some sort of Asian-inspired dish). Another restaurant, Karukera, had English translations on their menu and had a soy veggie burger. Watch out for eggs on veggie burgers.