On a cold Wednesday afternoon, I parked at my favorite secret street spot near the Philadelphia airport. I Uber’d to the gate. With the Frontier app and a small backpack, I flew off for the eventual destination of Guayaquil, Ecuador with stops in Miami and Venezuela.
I arrived in Miami on Wednesday night. After settling and dealing with some padlock issues I relaxed. The idea of vacation began to sink in. The hostel, Hostelling International Miami, was offering a Miami nightlife special: drinks, limo ride, and cover for $30. Chump change for Miami. Tipsy, we crammed 25 euro-travelers into a stretch SUV limo and drove to LIV, a popular Miami club. I love the idea of dancing to electronic music, you’d think I’d enjoy LIV. I was underwhelmed. The music was loud. The staff were rude. Men that appear to be drug dealers pulled girls into the “VIP” where they are quarantined and served fancy liquors with fruit juice while snapping a near-infinite succession of selfies presumably to be shown to those outside the quarantine zone in an act of ego self-preservation. Luckily I met four interesting Germans and two Austrians from the hostel limo. I hung out with them for the night discussing global trade and the merits of world travel.
On Thursday, I wandered the streets and beach in the warmth of the Miami sun. The term “miles from ordinary” comes to mind. To feel the warm breeze and wear shorts was a vacation in itself. I happened upon my two new Austrian friends on the beach and proceeded to grab midday Mojitos with them at a local open air bar on South Beach’s Lincoln Rd. From there I went to my reservations for Thursday Pasta night at Macchialina. Thanks to Miami’s Food for Thought Blog for that. The Beet Mezzaluna was filled with hazelnuts, brown butter & ricotta salata for only $10. Every other night it’s $23. I’d have paid that. This was one of the most unique and challenging pasta dishes I’ve ever had. If you’re super hungry, I’d recommend ordering two.
That night I foolishly signed up again for the hostel’s party promotion: AYCD and transport to the club for the night. I was the only one that signed up. I ended up rolling up to the club on the back of the promoter’s scooter. Imagine me hugging a 200-pound Lebanese male from behind. On a Vespa. An embarrassing experience, but one I can laugh at. Once again, I was disappointed by the evening’s entertainment for the same reasons listed above. I bounced quickly.
On Friday, I spent even more time on the beach and wandering around South Beach Miami eating some top cheap eats. That night we met up with popular fitness Instagrammer and friend Liz Bracero . Sometime soon I’ll describe in detail how I go about using Facebook to make connections on trips in order to meet new people and get an insider’s look at the town. We ate at a Ramen pop-up. She showed us some of Brickell in downtown Miami. I loved seeing how Miami’s young professionals hang out poolside for happy hour in February.
Early Saturday morning, we Uber’d over to the airport, which is only $11 in Miami. Uber is probably the only thing affordable in Miami. We had a 5-hour layover in Venezuela where we practiced our Spanish with two friendly Venezuelan girls who were happy to talk about their country and family life during these tough times. Making new friends is a good way to pass the time during layovers.
Finally, we arrived in Ecuador. One of our friends helped us called a cab to our hostel. Thanks!
That night we met up with a Facebook buddy of mine, David, who showed us the Guayaquil night scene. I haven’t been in a hotter and sweatier place than in Guayaquil. It was at least 120F inside. They dance to Latin music, yell, and go crazy. They sneak ice in their beer. Gross. One needs to be careful with the local tap water. It’s known to carry Typhoid Fever. Ice is a common way to get this. We ended up eating massive double cheeseburgers on the street. Street food in Ecuador always comes with thoughts of food sickness. But they top their burgers with ham and a fried egg. So I approve.
The following day we cleansed ourselves of the evening with Mass at a local church run by the Jesuits. The locals Guayaquileans (?) are so joyful during their worship. It’s beautiful. Guayaquil isn’t a tourist city. We strolled the parks during the day. Most were pretty dilapidated. Nothing was open. There was a cool park with iguanas. There were some beautiful churches. Guides say to spend no more than a day here. I’d agree.
That evening we met up with a couple Facebook friends for drinks. We practiced our Spanish and sat looking out over the Guayes river. Kind of what I’d expect from an Ecuadorian river. There were mud and hundreds of floating Lilly pad bunches. Our friends took us for popsicles and a ride on Guayaquil’s “iconic” Ferris wheel. We saw 8 tourists the entire time we were in town. This was a nice chance to see the locals and get a feel for the country. Many other places in Ecuador have many white travelers. This is fine. But, it dampens the authenticity of the cultural observation.
From Guayaquil, we passed by bus through the Andean low hills to Baños. The town of Baños is nestled within three major mountains. It’s a hub for European and South American travelers looking to get outdoors. The buses in Ecuador are surprisingly nice charter style buses. The 7 hours went by quick. They show movies. It helped to have my SleepMaster mask (thanks, Tim Ferriss), ear plugs, and Platypus water bag. You can’t drink from the tap in Ecuador, but all our hostels provided clean water. En route to Baños, we met 6 Canadians and an Irish girl wandering around South America. Making friends helps make the trip seem shorter.
Our two days in Baños were incredible. It’s cooler in Baños than Guayaquil, but bearable. We hiked the local hills. We biked 15 miles along a route full of waterfalls. We did a crazy cliff’s edge swing thanks to my buddy Anya’s suggestion. We ziplined over a 500 ft canyon. We swam in waterfalls. We met a wonderful Danish girl (hi, Amalie ;)) and some new boys from LA and Galway. We spent two evenings soaking in the famous hot springs there with the locals. What a deal at $3 per session.
From Baños we returned to Montañita via Guayaquil. We rode the overnight bus for 10 hrs. While the overnight bus is a bit draining, I don’t regret it. It saved us a day of touring. Montañita a beach paradise. It’s slow. It’s quaint. It’s rowdy. It’s known for drugs and partying. Its under control. Nothing was crazy. Everything is sand and liquor. There are no big name hotels or high rises. It’s surf shops, jewelry shops, and small restaurants.
At night, Montanita parties to Latin music. I was amazed how happy and expressive South Americans are. I don’t see Argentinian and Chilean culture often here. Why? They don’t leave. It sounds like a wonderful place. Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina are high up on the list. Everyone I met from there was friendly and joyful. Maybe that’s because they were at the beach? Another friend we met on Facebook showed us where to go and treated us to beers in her family’s restaurant in the neighboring town of Olon. This town is quieter and the beach is prettier. It’s a good idea to stay in Montañita and beach it in Olon. The bus ride is $0.50 and 10 minutes.
Our second day in Montañita we headed up an hour to Los Frailles Beach. Some consider it the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. It’s a massive cove surrounded by red rock precipes. The waves are big. The sun was hot.
After Frailles, sunkissed and wiped out, we napped. Then it rained. A lot. February is rainy season in Ecuador. They don’t have summer and winter. It’s rain season or dry season. We got lucky to only get one rain while we were there. Right around 1 am the rain let up and it was my birthday. So we went out. The bars were still packed despite some rain. We danced and sang. We drank responsibly. We witnessed people bribing the police so they could use their SUV to blare dance music to 100’s of people in the streets. There were no fights. No aggression. No pretension or expectation to “dress up”. This is my kind of place. This was our last night in Ecuador.
On our final day, still my birthday, we ate sushi and drank beers by the water. A perfect birthday meal. Later in the day we wandered up the hillside to a shrine. The shrine sits atop a 350-foot cliff peninsula. We didn’t know this, but it houses a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that is said to weep blood every November 11th. They hold a service every 11th of the month to commemorate the miracle. Guess who was asked to carry the miraculous blood-stained statue from it’s resting place up the stairs to the chapel? Yes, us. We climbed the stairs very carefully, needless to say. They happened to have a Mass at the time so we stayed and worshiped with the local people. It’s an incredible place to pray. The chapel is completely open air with both sides facing opposite ends of the cliffs. The beach below stretch out for miles in both directions.
We spent our final night back in the city in Guayaquil to be close to our flight. That morning we headed back to Miami via Barcelona, Venezuela again.
In Miami, we enjoyed the weather and visited my favorite hot dog place in the world, Sweet Dogs (in Flagami). I ate an upscale meal at Byblos that was only mediocre for the price. For the most part, I chilled in Miami. We went fairly rigorously in Ecuador and my body needed a break. The time to return to Philadelphia came quickly. As my Uber driver turned the corner where my car was parked, I saw it was still there in perfect shape. The trip was then complete.
I’ve now developed a love for South America. It was so fun to practice my Spanish. I developed decent conversational Spanish during my summer on a landscaping crew. The warm weather lifted my spirit. The warm people lifted my soul. It’s so valuable in understanding people by visiting their home countries. I was honored to see how Ecuadorians live. I cherished the opportunity to hear other travelers’ stories, particularly those who have taken the risk of traveling long-term throughout distant lands. Ecuador is filled with happy and kind people. They don’t have a ton of money. They do live in paradise. It shows on their faces and in their demeanor. We never felt unsafe or looked down upon. Everyone was welcoming and happy to hear gringos trying their best at Spanish. It was a beautiful and rejuvenating time.
PS. I found a few restaurants I can recommend and went to several I won’t mention because they weren’t standouts.
Marrecife has amazing seafood. It’s #1 on TripAdvisor for a reason.
Cevecheria Pepe 3. It’s #1 on Facebook places. Raw seafood in Ecuador is a risk, but we trusted this place because it had so many positive reviews. Great flavors and cheap.
Honey Café has great pastries.
The saffron sauce on the tuna at Rocio was incredible. Unfortunately, they cooked the tuna well-done. Blunder.
Crumb on Parchment has an ethereal breakfast sandwich.
Sweet Dogs creates insane hot dogs with a full meal’s worth of toppings.
Ceviche 105 has well-executed ceviche, albeit pretty pricey.
Macchialina pasta is fresh made and challenging in flavor combinations. It’s worth a visit.
Las Olas Café has delicious and cheap empanadas.