After over two weeks in Ecuador, I feel like I’ve had a successfully authentic experience.
Getting to stay with local families has deepened my appreciation for the culture and enhanced my spanish-speaking skills, and witnessing the natural beauty of the land has completely blown my mind.
So far I have explored the capital city of Quito, surrounding towns such as Valle De Los Chilios and Lloa, and incredible areas of natural beauty such as Cotopaxi National Park, Laguna Quilotoa and the humble farms of Santa Ana Del Pedregal.
As Ecuador’s capital city, Quito is full of culture, commercialism, and typical city life. Looking down over the city from above is almost as amazing than exploring the city at ground level.
From the top of el Panecillo, a huge aluminum statue atop a hill, you can look downwards over Quito as it sprawls across the land with block shaped houses and buildings that look like legos. It’s a chaotic, cramped center of civilization nestled against the enormity of the surrounding mountains. The same view is just as stunning at nighttime, when the shining mass of glittering city lights illuminates the darkness of the endless hills.
Quito is home to numerous tranquil parks, artisan street markets, a wide variety of restaurants where you can find full meals for only a couple dollars, and houses painted every color imaginable.
The Centro Historico is an incredible place, packed with magnificent government buildings, narrow yet busy side streets, and stunning architecture.
As all predominately Christian cities do, Quito also has many churches and basilicas that are simply jaw-dropping. I stumbled across a church called “El Sagrario” that didn’t look like much from the outside, but inside revealed spectacular ornamentation and religious artwork. The creaky wooden floorboards rested humbly beneath gigantic golden shrines decorated with roses and statues and paintings. While everyone in the church recited some sort of prayer or hymn in unison, I just sat in the back by myself gazing at the immense beauty and mystical atmosphere of the place.
Another highlight of Quito was the Festival de los Luces, or Festival of Lights. For every night this past week, the churches of the Centro Historico acted as stages for creative light displays while dramatic music played over speakers. Though the city was so crowded you could barely walk at times, the light shows were well worth the discomfort.
One particular light display at a smaller church was space themed, showing constellations, galaxies, lunar eclipses, planets, and impressive images of the red-hot glowing sun. In front of the church were tons of circular lightbulbs on sticks, which glowed and shimmered in accordance with the images and created an incredible overall show.
The entire night was gorgeous, and we finished the festival by buying a typical snack called Choclo con Queso. This is basically corn on the cob cooked on grills by the side of the road and covered in butter, mayonnaise, and cheese.
Slightly north of Quito lies the Equator, or “El Mitad Del Mundo”. My Venezuelan friend and I took a day trip here and learned about indigenous cultures, the process of making chocolate, and the physics of the Equator line. You could balance an egg upright on a tiny pin because apparently gravity is centered at the Equator. During the tour, we roamed through a little village full of sun-themed artwork and little straw huts.
Valle De Los Chilios
This small town lies in a valley outside of Quito, and I spent some time living with local families here. The hospitality was amazing; everyone treated me like family and welcomed me into their homes with no hesitation.
I’ve noticed that families are very tight-knit here. Extended family members often live together and work together, and if not everyone lives close enough to spend lots of time together. I ate delicious home-cooked meals with the families and was able to practice my Spanish. In the week that I’ve been here, I’ve spoken only Spanish for most days, and everyone is perfectly willing to help me improve my language skills.
This active volcano in the Andes Mountains is an impressive sight. Driving through El Parque Nacional de Cotopaxi is not for the faint-hearted, as the land is extremely rugged due to previous lava flows. After resting by a peaceful lake in the park, the clouds parted a bit to reveal part of the massive, snow-capped peak of the volcano. The altitude in the park definitely hit me hard while driving up to Cotopaxi, as I could only breathe in short, shallow breaths and my ears hurt a bit. But the incredible landscape was well worth the temporary discomfort.
After many hours aboard numerous different buses from Quito, I was lucky to see this gigantic lake in the middle of a volcanic crater. We stumbled for half an hour down the steep, dusty pathway, then admired the warm glow of the setting sun in the glassy surface of the peaceful water.
Santa Ana Del Pedregal
One day I went with some family members to visit their grandfather’s farm up in the mountains, and this was a journey to remember. The entire drive was steep, winding, and unbelievably bumpy as the roads were unpaved and covered in dirt and stones. As we passed wide green fields full of wild cows, horses, dogs, and llamas, distant volcanoes and mountains leered in the distance making for a very scenic drive. Cows and donkeys grazed right beside the road as we bounded higher and higher into the village Santa Ana Del Pedregal.
Once we reached the farm, I could not stop admiring how adorable the house was. The dark red home covered in decorations stood out like a beacon of warm, cozy, family life against the vastness of the hills, mountains, and volcanoes.
After having lunch at the farm and feeding the llamas and goats in the backyard, we hiked to a nearby stream and found a waterfall hidden in the forest. I climbed up the hill alongside the waterfall through the damp, muddy, forest floor, until I reached the top and watched the freezing cold water cascade downwards over rocks and branches.
As if this day weren’t perfect already, when we returned back through the path towards the farm, three adorable puppies were waiting next to the car. Another observation about Ecuador: there are dogs and puppies EVERYWHERE. That may be my favorite part so far.
What brought me to Ecuador in the first place, for those who don’t know, is a website called WorldPackers, where you can work in exchange for free accommodation. The place I applied to work is La Hacienda Hosteria La Antigua, which resides in the tiny town of Lloa.
The town center of Lloa can be fully explored in about 10 minutes, but La Antigua is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. While the exterior is painted a rich, rustic red and laced with vines, the decor inside truly lives up to its name. All the surfaces are dark brown wood except for the gigantic fireplace and floors which are all stone. Unique paintings, photos, and decorations bring life to the stone walls and the surrounding lands are spacious and full of animals.
The best view at La Antigua is looking out the back door, where the Volcano Pichincha stands in all its glory. Rolling hills slope across the surface of the Volcano, and different shades of green from crop fields and trees layer the mountain beautifully. I honestly could not stop staring at this view.
I loved working at La Antigua because, again, I got to know local people as well as the interesting travelers who came for dinner. I helped clean all the gorgeous bedrooms, prepare the meals, and serve the customers. One night I served dinner to 22 Germans and my English actually came in handy since many of them spoke better English than Spanish. But since I’ve been trying so hard to speak in only Spanish, I honestly was confused at first when I was asked to speak in English.
Overall working at La Antigua was a fun yet peaceful experience. The area was very remote, so I got to enjoy serene walks through the landscape and strolls through the tiny town. The work was exciting and the girls I worked with were hilarious.