Somewhere In the Middle of the World

Life Lesson from Quito: If you see a guy juggling machetes on the side of the road get off the bus and take a video. You can always catch another bus, but you won’t find the machete juggler again no matter how hard you look. And the universe even gave us two chances: once when we were heading north toward Mitad del Mundo, and again after we realized we were on the wrong bus and had to turn around. We went hunting the next day and the day after, but we never saw the dude again.

But at least here’s a llama.

So what, you may rightly ask, were we doing back in Quito? When I last left you hanging, dear readers, Lea and I were enjoying the hot springs in the little resort village of Papallacta. We spent one night in the ultra-nice resort at the top of the valley then moved down to the pueblo itself for cheaper accommodations, laundry service, and the hot springs park favored by the locals instead of the tourists. Throw in some hiking in the Andes with only a little bit of rain and you have the makings of a pleasant few days.

Papallacta, however, is to the east of Quito and the places we wanted to head next were to the west. And besides, while we were more than ready to move on from Quito, we still hadn’t hit its most famous attraction – the equator itself. Mitad del Mundo is the big, chintzy monument park, museum and shop complex north of the city where you can take pictures of yourself standing on a yellow line marking 0.00⁰ latitude.


Yes, yes, yes, if you do the research you’ll find that the monument and the line aren’t exactly on the equator, and there’s another museum just up the road that claims to be the real thing. But the ex-physicist in me says, “Oh yeah? Well for your information, smarty, the Earth wobbles on its axis so that the poles and the equator are changing slightly every day, so no line you draw will ever be completely accurate. So shut up and don’t spoil my equator photos.”


Anyway, after a couple days parked at a crummy hostel near the Ofelia Bus Terminal in a sketchy part of the north end of town, we were very much finito with Quito. Our current port of call is Mindo, a village to the west that’s lower in altitude yet still in a cloud forest, in a valley that’s a biodiversity hotspot. We spent our first night taking photos of birds from top floor of our hostel. The next day we went to a butterfly farm and saw even more species of hummingbirds just sitting on the back porch of a different hostel on the edge of town.

Yesterday we rode a taxi up a mountain and a cable car across a gorge so we could hike to Cascada Reina, one of seven falls you can hike to at once if you’re a twenty-two year old German athlete in perfect physical condition. For us old folks, it was an experience that’s already been described quite accurately by blogger Mark McElroy in his article “Death March to Cascada Reina.” (No, we didn’t find that article until after making our trek. So much for research.)

We hiked five hours up and down a mountain for this photo so you better like it.

Today we got up before dawn to take one of the many bird-watching tours offered in the area. Even my telephoto lens was inadequate for birdspotting, a task much akin to picking out insects in Central Park from the International Space Station. Fortunately our guide had a telescope that she’d apparently borrowed from NASA and was able to help us out with some photos of her own. Birdwatching in the jungle was a fun experience that Lea and I now know we never have to do again. It was also a tour which, unfortunately, blew our budget for the day and then some.

And there’s the rub.

So far the little towns in the mountains, Papallacta and Mindo, were by far more pleasant and relaxing than the big, bustling city of Quito, but in a way they’re more expensive. In Quito you can ride from the south end of the city to the north for a mere 25¢ (and the emotional toil of standing for two hours in a dense human scrum on a bus driven by a lunatic who turns corners like Sandra Bullock in the movie Speed). In towns with no public transportation you’re at the mercy of the cabbies and tour operators.

In Quito there are plenty of museums and beautiful old churches you can visit at no cost. Even the ones that aren’t free don’t charge much – the Basilica only costs $2 to enter and the city’s really nice botanical garden only cost $3.50. Our excursion to the falls alone cost $22 in cab fare and cablecar rides, plus the food and water we had to bring ourselves, plus the Cuba Libre and Mexican food we needed afterward for medicinal purposes. The bird watching trip cost what you’d expect to pay for a shore excursion from a cruise line, and we’re not anywhere near a port.

This hummingbird disapproves.

Our goal on this trip (well, one of them) is to slow travel. To travel cheaply and stay cheaply, moving from town to town while absorbing the local atmosphere and culture, discovering the casual, everyday beauty that the fast-paced tourist would never notice. That ideal is harder to meet in practice than in theory, and it seems to be easier in the Big City where the air can be so bad it literally made my eyes burn from the fumes.

It’s early days yet and I’m sure we’ll get the hang of it. Our next port of call will be Puerto Lopez on the Pacific coast where, yes, we’ll take at least one tour and hopefully see some whales. After that we’re off for Loja and, sooner than you think, the Peruvian border.

Along the way the plan is to kick back, let the hummingbirds come to us, enjoy the cool evening breeze and, as they say, stop and smell the roses. But I’m still holding out for a guy juggling machetes.

Mindo Wildlife Photodump!

Size does matter.