Last updated on November 30th, 2023
Featured image: Giant Galapagos tortoises at a reserve on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands.
What I learned in Ecuador: the joy of discovery
By Carolyn Ray, JourneyWoman
Last September, I stood at the border of Ecuador and Colombia, wondering what there was to discover on the other side of the river. I knew about the Galapagos Islands and had watched David Attenborough’s “The Galapagos”, but I admit to a lack of knowledge about other areas of Ecuador. Inspired by curiosity, I put Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands on my 2024 vision wall of sticky notes and waited to see if the universe would make it happen.
In June, I met Ecuador’s Minister of Tourism and Rebecca Braak from Rebecca Adventure Travel, who shared stories with me about the Andes and the Amazon. However, given the presidential elections, it didn’t seem like the right time to visit. Then, in July, Intrepid Travel invited me to visit the Galapagos Islands on their small, 16-person ship in mid-August. Suddenly, the dream started to feel real.
Should I stay or go?
But then, the day before I left in August, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated as he left a campaign event in Quito. A few days later, another politician was killed in the coastal city of San Mateo de Esmeraldas. I had to stop and reconsider my plans. News headlines were alarming and government advisories called for a high degree of caution, but not in the areas I was visiting.
As I did my research, I discovered that Ecuador doesn’t get a lot of positive press coverage beyond events of political unrest and natural disasters. Knowing headlines can be misleading and even incite fear, I decided to go and find out about Ecuador for myself, with proper safety precautions in place. As Pico Iyer says: “We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow’s headlines.”
I’m grateful I did travel to Ecuador, because it is a trip that reinforced my sense of connection with myself and the world, and shifted my perspective on a country I had only seen from a distance. It was a privilege to be there, particularly during such a turning point in its history. Ecuador surprised me at every turn – not only did I discover new things about our world, I found new strengths within myself.
Five things I learned in Ecuador
1. How vulnerable we are
Six hundred miles out in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands is often referred to as a ‘bucket-list’ destination – but I think these islands are much more than that. They are a reminder of life’s fragility, how vulnerable species are and our shared struggle for existence. For its size, there are more unique species on the Galapagos than anywhere in the world – including giant tortoises, iguanas, sea lions, penguins and seabirds. It’s an essential place to understand evolution and adaption.
I am surprised to learn that 60% of the tourism to these pacific islands is from Ecuador, and only 3% of the islands are inhabited by people. It is one of the most diverse environments on Earth, a place where evolution — and extinction — happens at extraordinary speed. Giant tortoises, which used to number in the hundreds of thousands and are now in the hundreds. For centuries, they were used for food, and are now are protected in sanctuaries and reserves.
When I ask my guides about the threats to the Galapagos, overtourism isn’t even mentioned. Instead, overfishing, El Niño (which causes a warming of the oceans due to climate change) and having the right kind of conservation-minded tourist is. There is a monumental effort being undertaken by the Galapagos Conservancy (funded by the Intrepid Foundation) to educate both Ecuadorians (particularly children through school curriculum, with a goal of influencing parents) and tourists from other countries about what it means to be a ‘good tourist’, including longer stays and slower travel. Travelling on a small ship as a guest of Intrepid showed me that there is a very intentional and conscious desire to protect wildlife in the Galapagos. Without the protection of our most vulnerable species, none of us is truly safe.
A Blue-footed Booby in the Galapagos / Photo credit Carolyn Ray
Snorkeling at Pinnacle Rock in the Galapagos / Photo credit Carolyn Ray
2. When we let fear guide us, we lose out on opportunities for growth
When I start feeling too comfortable, I know I need to challenge myself to take a step in a different direction. But taking that first step can be hard.
Two years ago, I faced my fear of horses on a six-day backcountry horseback riding trip in Banff, Alberta. I was terrified, but I did it. I’ve been longing to be on a horse ever since. On this trip, I finally get the chance to ride one — 16,000 feet up on the side of a mountain.
After the Galapagos Islands, I am invited to stay at a family-owned hacienda called Tierra del Volcán, near Cotopaxi Volcano, just outside Quito. This hacienda has an amazing story – the land was purchased by a visionary widow five generations ago and in 1999, her descendants, Maria and Jorge, opened it to visitors. They have transformed it into a transformational and sustainable retreat place, with local food, providing new career paths to many in the community.
I was full of joy riding up almost 16,000 feet to see Cotapaxi, an active volcano that last erupted in 2015 and the second highest summit in Ecuador, at 5879 m /19,347 ft. Not only did I enjoy every second, I also learned how to gallop, another personal barrier busted. I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time.
16,000 feet up with Cotapaxi Volcano in the background
3. What community really means
About four hours south of Quito, I visit Guamote, a small Indigenous community of about 5,000 people in the Andes. The town is famous for its weekly Indigenous market, which the whole community attends.
I tour the Inti Sisa Foundation, which operates a kindergarten with about 40 children from the community. These young people are encouraged to dream about their future. They write down their dreams and are taught skills including computer literacy, math, sewing and music.
As a guest of the Inti Sisa Art Guesthouse, which offers rooms and sightseeing programs for tourists, I spend the morning visiting women in the community, learning about their lives. If you’ve travelled in South America before you’ve probably heard of a ‘minga’ or ‘minka’, where people come together to help one another – be it building a home, planting or harvesting. As we drove through the Andes, I saw groups of people with shovels cleaning the roadside so that water could flow back into the river. I visited a school where students grow food for the community, in addition to their studies. If someone is walking along the road and needs a ride, they get picked up. If you have food, you share it. This is just the way it is.
Something my guide, Jennifer, says really strikes home for me: ‘If you have your community, you will be strong’. Building community takes vision, trust and time. It is the glue that holds us together.
4. Positive energy creates positive energy
For five days, my home was the 20-room riverboat Manatee Amazon Riverboat on the Napo River, a major tributary that flows into the Amazon River. Every day, our group of six English-speaking curiosity seekers struck out at sunrise and sunset to explore the incredible biodiversity of this lesser-known area.
I’ve always believed that creatures won’t hurt me unless I do something to hurt them. So when my guide suggests I jump into a dark, inky lagoon full of piranhas, I do it. When a nighttime walk holds the promise of three things I am terrified of (snakes, enormous spiders and tarantulas), I swallow my fear and go. I am astounded by pink tarantulas that live in trees, green tree frogs that resemble leaves and brown long nosed bats that blend into logs. The whole time, I keep reminding myself to trust nature and myself.
The biggest thrill, however, was seeing pink dolphins. On an early morning ride, we are the first group out in the motorized canoe. Suddenly, we see frolicking n the water ahead of us, and we’re treated to a rare sighting of two pink dolphins playing. I am amazed to learn that their cervical bones in their necks have adapted to bend around underground tree branches.
My guide Alex reminds us, “When you bring good energy, you get it back.”
Long-nosed bats on a log in the Amazon / Photo by Carolyn Ray
A frog that blends in as a leaf in the Amazon / Photo by Carolyn Ray
Pink tarantulas that live in trees / Photo by Carolyn Ray
5. We have to adapt too
The last week of my trip is spent in Quito’s Old Town. The first two days I barely leave my small hotel to catch up on work. On the third afternoon, I walk to the Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica, then toward Plaza Grande for a walking tour.
I’m not alone on the street. There are lots of people. I’m wearing a black baseball hat with my blonde hair tied underneath, and my cross-body bag has my phone in it under my jeans jacket. But suddenly, I feel a cold spraying sensation on my head and back, and I realize it’s what I heard about from other women – the pigeon poop scam, a petty crime tactic to help tourists unload their belongings. I swear, stop, and immediately two men appear from nowhere with napkins to help me clean up. I take one napkin, thank them and walk away. No harm done, but it gives me a different feeling about Quito. Now I am hyper-aware of my surroundings.
Safety doesn’t have to be a violent crime to make us feel uncomfortable. It can happen anywhere, anytime, and even the smallest thing can shift our perspective. Even having city police everywhere, and my experience living and staying for extended periods in more South American countries than I can count, doesn’t mean a thing. But I am grateful for this – after three weeks of being in smaller communities, it reminded me to adapt to my current environment. As a female solo traveller, that’s a critical lesson to learn, wherever we are.
What I’m taking with me
Curiosity is one of the best attributes of a traveller. You can read all the articles you want, but the only way to really find out what’s true or not is to get out there. As a travel writer, I feel an urgency to be on the ground, not just reading about the places I want to visit.
As I watch the volcanoes of Ecuador pass by on the plane from Quito, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude for my time in this country. I have learned so much and experienced so many things I never expected or planned for, all of which have re-invigorated my sense of adventure and trust in the world.
I know from my five months in Mexico in 2021 that we can’t paint every country with the same brush. Even though I had a minor negative experience in Old Town Quito, it doesn’t change my impression of Ecuador. As a country geographically surrounded by with Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, Ecuador has some significant challenges to overcome and time will tell if the country is able to evolve beyond its systemic issues.
My life is so much richer than it was just a month ago. I feel like I discovered the soul of this country, challenged myself in new and different ways and rediscovered my curiosity. Muchas gracias, Ecuador.
Note: I always want to be transparent about how I travel and who pays for it. For this trip, I was a guest of Intrepid Travel for the Galapagos, and Rebecca Adventure Travel assisted with organizing the Amazon and Andes portions of my trips. However, I paid for most of the travel myself, including a fee to Rebecca Adventure Travel, tips to my three guides, the Manatee Amazon, seven of the 10 hotels I stayed at and airfare. I also did an excurion to Ovalto and Mindou at my own cost. Fortunately media sometimes get media rates at some hotels which helps reduce our costs. Sponsors do not review articles before they are published nor do they influence our editorial in any way. If I think you will enjoy an experience, I write about it!
Coming soon! Look for more articles on Ecuador, including features on the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon Basin, The Andes and where to stay.
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