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I’m so pleased I can communicate here in Chile. Dealing with flight cancellations, changes, rescheduling, hotel vouchers, food vouchers: all this would be so much more difficult if I didn’t speak Spanish. I’m grateful to the people who can help me in English when I’m exhausted and trying to do something complicated, but more often my Spanish is better than their English and we switch over fairly quickly.

It’s also incredibly nice to be in this otherworldly hotel. Soft clean sheets, hot running water and a bathtub, ample fluffy towels, meals, and transportation provided and arranged on my behalf. It takes all the adventure out of travelling, but on the day of my flight it’s reliability, not the unexpected, that I’m looking for. The sign in the lobby quotes my hotel’s room rate as $289 per night for a single. I’m in a double, with three meals and taxi service included. The airline might have spent a third of my ticket cost on this delay. Considering I checked my ticket online and I have yet another flight change in my connection to Sydney, I can hardly say I feel sorry for them. At the minimum, I feel relaxed about the whole situation. If another of my flights changes, it is out of my hands. As I sit in the hotel restaurant sipping fruit juice while my waiter brings me my steak of Chilean beef, I feel quite confident that the airline will continue to take care of me. I take a bite. The steak is tender and perfectly medium-rare, the tiny balls of fried mashed potatoes crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. The veggies are lightly curried and served al dente. Yes, I’m in very good hands indeed. This feels so far removed from camping in the Peruvian Andes or exploring the Amazon on $5 a day. I don’t have a single peso on me, and yet I’m seated on a velvet and walnut chair, dining on steak in a hotel with marble floors.

In the afternoon I wandered the tourist sites nearest the hotel – a park leading to a lookout over the city and offering a view of the snow-capped Chilean Andes beyond, a craft market, and the imposing structures of the National Archives and City Library. Exploring the area, I was surprised at how different Chile feels from the more northern countries on the continent. The climate is cooler, reminding me of Vancouver. I’ve re-entered the world of seasons – I was surprised to find it still dark at 7am, as days are noticeably shorter here. The deciduous trees have lost their leaves, something I haven’t seen in over a year. the people are also different – there are more light-skinned people than I’m used to seeing, and my lighter hair and eyes don’t mark me as a tourist like they did in Peru and Ecuador. In fact, I find it disconcerting not being able to use appearance and visual clues to guess what language to use with somebody. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and stick to Spanish. The locals appear to do the same, as a couple of university students raising money for educational reforms assume I’m Chilean until my accent gives me away. I’ve decided that I like the city, though, on first view. My instincts tell me that I could live here contentedly, and maybe enven integrate more into the culture than I could elsewhere in Latin America. If I ever get tired of a world without winter, living in Chile will definitely be an option.

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This place, and this family, is ridiculously nice. On June 24th, the festival of San Juan, Ellen and I took a day of rest after our busy weekend of exploring the Amazonian way of life. We set up our mosquito net as a safe haven where we could chat and play games in peace, and spent the day puttering around. We went for a swim in the Amazon river (staying close to shore, of course) and washed our laundry in the river as well. We felt slightly guilty for doing nothing all day, but after dinner Lucio suggested a quick walk to the bridge and back. This turned into a full-scale jungle walk by torchlight. We listened to the sounds of nocturnal birds, bats, and frogs, spotted a few jungle creatures, and listened to Lucio tell us a legend that was the Amazon version of Hansel and Gretel.

The following day we walked into Tamshiyaco, the nearest town. On our way, we passed a local who had just come across and killed a 3.5 meter long boa constrictor. The snake was still moving, although the blood trail from a nearby field indicated that we’d missed the action by at least 15 minutes. We felt thrilled to see such a large snake – and frightened to find it so close to our path. What if we’d been the first to stumble over it, unarmed and unaware? Despite the carnivorous snakes and piranhas in the river, the Amazon doesn’t feel like a dangerous place to me, though. It has a powerful natural force to be respected, but caution rather than fear seems to be enough to keep you safe. You can swim in the river, but not too far out where the current will sweep you away. The piranhas don’t eat people except in extremely rare cases, and the crocodiles only come out at night. The Amazon feels like just another place that people call home, albeit a wilder one.

To think that we could have come across one of these on our own!

To think that we could have come across one of these on our own!

On Wednesday morning we went fishing again. I wanted to make up for my failure to catch anything earlier in the week, and nobody here will turn down a nice fried fish. I jokingly insisted we all change rods, blaming mine for my bad luck last time, and the lucky rod Ellen had used before paid out on this trip as well. This time around, I caught four piranhas, a sardine, and a tall flat fish called a palometa, while Ellen caught two piranhas and a striped grey fish that Lucio called a lisa. Lucio, using the rod that had been so unlucky for me last time, broke his hook after catching just one fish, a catfish-like creature that we used for bait. The four silvery-grey larger fish flopped around in the bottom of the canoe while we finished fishing, but Lucio insisted that the piranhas be put at the front of the boat where they wouldn’t bite our bare toes while we fished. I found it amusing that we were free to trail our hands and feet in the water, or even jump into the river to bathe or swim without fear of being bitten, but a half-dead piranha on the canoe floor was a risk. However, seeing the impressive mouthful of teeth in one of them, I was willing to play it safe!

Rah! I'm a piranha! (They don't look so scary once they're caught!)

Rah! I’m a piranha! (They don’t look so scary once they’re caught!)

Several fish that we caught, displayed in one of the nice bowls we admired so much

Several fish that we caught, displayed in one of the nice bowls we admired so much

Late in the morning, we headed back to the house with a wooden bowl full of fish. We’ve seen a lot of similar bowls, which look like they’re made of coconut shells, are used for all sorts of tasks, especially for bathing. Ellen and I admired them openly, so Lucio offered to show us how they’re made. He took us to a tree with shiny green fruits the size of a small watermelon, pointed out a ripe one, and knocked it down with a stick, so he could make us a bowl each. He carefully sawed the fruit in half, shoosing which angle so the bowls would stay upright when filled. Then with a machete, he removed the horrible-smelling pulp (it’s good for inducing vomiting in sick or poisoned patients, he explained) and scraped the inside of the shell clean with a spoon. The completed bowls we placed to dry in the sun. At the time they were green, but within a week or two they’d turned brown, and looked like they’d make fine salad bowls. At this stage in my trip, with thoughts of leaving South America and establishing a home again on my mind, I was glad to carry around the bowl as a souvenir of my time in the jungle.

Lucio hollowing the bowl out with a spoon.

Lucio hollowing the bowl out with a spoon.

Uncle Lucio and Aunt Ana’s house is a few hundred meters inland from the Amazon River, a short distance from a little village. The front of the house affords a view of a field of water buffalo with the river beyond. Behind their home, a chicken coop is nestled among fruit and nut trees. The jungle backs the orchard almost immediately, and the house is an interesting juxtaposition of civilization in wilderness. The roof is half thatched, half metal. Many of the beams are milled, but one section is made of nothing but logs. A concrete road the width of a sidewalk passes by the front door, but there is no plumbing in the area and the family cooks on a wood fire. When we arrived, Ana was cooking lunch for a road crew that was improving the riverfront path. She quickly fed us and pointed us to a little purple cabin on the riverfront with plenty of balcony space for our tents and two hammocks for us to relax in. We were home!

Somehow, we seemed to settle right into their family’s routine. Lucio took us for a little tour of the nearest town while the rest of the family did their shopping. Waiting for the canoe to take us home, Ellen and I watched river dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sunset. We rode back along the river by moonlight. Ana had a dinner of locally hunted armadillo waiting for us – “It’s endangered, but we need to eat,” Lucio explained.

The next day, we got to have our little trek into the jungle. Lucio took us wandering through dense foliage and across streams. As the path became less identifiable and split off repeatedly in all directions, it was clear we could never have explored this way on our own. We were making too much racket crashing through the bush to see any wildlife, but our guide was thoughtful enough to point out medicinal plants, edible fruits and nuts, and the local trees used for lumber. Back at the house, we munched on fresh Brazil nuts and finger painted with the seeds of the achiote fruit, under the cheerful instruction of the local children.

Sunday was the festival of San Juan, who was the namesake of a local town and the patron saint of the Amazon. Ana left just before midnight to buy special ingredients, not to return before lunchtime. While she was gone, we went fishing for piranhas with Lucio. Fishing is a much simpler affair than at home. Lucio cut three rods from a nearby tree and tied fishing line to them. We headed out in the family canoe with a can of worms from the garden. Cousin Romario turned our boat down one of those dark streams nestled amongst the trees that Ellen had been so dying to explore. We puttered up to a likely spot in the shade and watched as the fish managed to eat every worm off our hooks without being caught. Ellen had better luck than the rest of us, catching two small fish that we used for bait. My spell of bad luck continued as everyone else managed to catch something, and we got three piranhas in the end. The quiet time on the river did have one excellent reward, though: we saw two different kinds of monkeys in the trees. There was a pair of tiny monkeys no bigger than one of my fists. Their small bodies clutched the tree trunk as they ate sap from beneath the bark. Farther up, three slightly larger monkeys, black and white, swung from the branches at the tops of the trees. It was an excellent end to the morning.

Ellen and I arrived in the jungle city of Iquitos early in the evening, and decided to get a room and relax rather than running around looking for internet to check if we’d been expected by our couchsurfing hosts. The city was full of touts trying to book us on jungle tours and expeditions. Since the cheapest ones were seven times our daily budget of $5 apiece, we weren’t particularly interested in hearing the sales pitches.

Upon failing to reach our host the next morning, Ellen and I grabbed a stack of brochures from an info booth, headed to a market area, and sat down over beer to make a plan. There were a few tourist attractions within our price range, so we had a couple of days’ worth of adventures to have in Iquitos. When we went to find a phone booth to call our host, someone called out Ellen’s name from a passing motocar. Iquitos, it seems, is small enough for someone to find us just by asking around. Walter, our couchsurfing host, took us to the waterfront to chat. Clearly, his idea of couchsurfing differed from ours – he immediately launched into a sales pitch for different wilderness lodges in the jungle. When it became clear to him that we couldn’t pay, he encouraged us to spend a few days at his uncle’s place, where we could fish and explore the jungle at our own pace. All we’d have to do was bring some food for the family. This we agreed was in our budget, so Walter was all set to take us back to the hostel. “Umm…” said Ellen, “Aren’t we supposed to be staying with you?”

Once that confusion was sorted out, we started in on the next one. What food should we take to Uncle’s place? Walter insisted on shopping for us, but wanted 200 soles – $70, more or less. That is well beyond a reasonable price for groceries. We talked him down to a much lower price, but the next morning when we saw what he’d bought, we knew we’d been ripped off. What we saw in front of us, a small bag of rice, some pasta, and toilet paper, couldn’t have cost more than $5. Clearly, Walter’s commission for sending us to Uncle’s was about 85%. We were pretty pissed off because it made us look like we were taking advantage of Uncle, rather than Walter doing so.

Finally, we got on a river bus, one of the local boats doing the chicken-run service from village to village. We felt half-excited and quite apprehensive. Was this all a scam, or were we in for the time of our lives?

After the chaos that was the city of Trujillo, Ellen and I decided to take to the back roads of the Andean Sierra. A variety of people warned us that hitchhiking is impossible here, but it didn’t take us long to get a free lift once we were outside of city limits. Within a couple of hours, we had left the desert wasteland surrounding Trujillo behind us and were high in the mountains. Our driver dropped us off in a quiet mountain town and told us to turn left at the crossroads. Instead, we decided we liked the look of the place and didn’t fancy waiting for a ride through the construction zone on the way out of town. It didn’t take us long to find a family willing to have us camp in their back yard.

We shared our campsite with these adorable donkeys

We shared our campsite with these adorable donkeys

Paula, our host, was ridiculously kind to us. We arrived at four and I promptly fell asleep in my tent. At 7pm, it was cold and rainy out, and Paula came over to our campsite to invite us in for hot soup. Their home was spacious and the kitchen was warm and hospitable. Paula served us cups of hot water followed by a vegetable soup. She sent us off to bed again with thick wool blankets to keep us warm. I slept better than I had in weeks. In the morning, she served us another helping of soup for breakfast and wished us well on our journey.

Our second day of mountain travel was just as good. We got a ride to a mining town, Shorey, where over a cup of hot coffee we learned that the road north we were planning to travel on was closed and wouldn’t reopen for some time. We had picked our destination, Huamachuco, from a map, having no idea of the lay of the land or conditions of the road. Unconcerned with this obstacle to our plans, we paid for a ride south to a town called Santiago de Chuco instead, where the temperature was slightly warmer (12 degrees instead of 5) and the views were incredible.

Some of the afternoon's visitors to our campsite

Some of the afternoon’s visitors to our campsite

Our attempts to find a place to camp were less immediately successful – people kept pointing and saying “that way” – but paid off big-time. We eventually found a grassy meadow where (unbeknownst to us at the time) the local children take their families’ sheep and donkeys to graze. We set up our tents and were soon surrounded by a dozen kids asking us to teach them card games. A gorgeous view of the valley and a bottle of merlot that Ellen was able to open with her pocket knife added to the pleasant atmosphere. At the end of the day, Ellen and I decided to watch a movie on my laptop before bed, which we did with several kids’ noses pressed against the screen door of my tent.

Opening wine without a bottle opener - Success!

Opening wine without a bottle opener – Success!

In the morning, Ellen went into town to buy breakfast and find out about traffic south. The roads were almost deserted, so we paid for our spaces in a van heading to the next town over, which was locally famous for hot springs. We stopped and paid a dollar each for our first private hot bath since we left Canada. Leaving town was a bit more difficult, as no cars seemed to be driving after lunchtime, whether we offered to pay them or not. We sat down at a little bar for a noontime beer while we decided what to do, and a local girl offered us her aunt’s yard to camp in.

Little did we know when we accepted her suggestion that Auntie’s house was an hour’s hike up a mountain in the rain. We trudged up the hills with our heavy packs and half-slid down the muddy trail down again. We’re lucky we took her up on the offer, though, because we ended up in another amazing valley. Tia Sabina, our hostess, turned out to have a raised covered platform with a splendid view, right across from a natural hot spring with seperate pools for drinking water and bathing. The springs were sourrounded by earthen walls for privacy, so Ellen and I closed the door and soaked our aching muscles after our unexpected hike. With our tents kept dry by the grass-covered roof of our sleeping platform, and our makeshift hot water bottles filled from the hot springs, Ellen and I were warm and comfortable in the brisk mountain air. We may not be going very far each day, but we’re certainly living it up in the Andean Highlands.

The perfect campsite, right by the hot springs!

The perfect campsite, right by the hot springs!

Northern Peru is a land of poverty, much more so than any other country we’ve visited in Latin America. We’ve left the Sierra in favour of the coast, and it feels like nothing could be more different from the cloud forests of Ecuador. Most of what we see from the side of the road is dry and dusty, in stark contrast to the lush green mountains and misty jungles of the last few months. A few fields of sugarcane and mango orchards stand out from the expanse of dry grasses, but the majority of the view here is still sandy brown. Houses along the roadside are the same colour, constructed from sun-dried adobe bricks. Every once in a while, we drive by a half-empty village, with partial walls and bricked-in entranceways in many of the structures. I can’t tell if the walls of the abandoned homes were cannibalized to use the earthen bricks for other buildings nearby, or if their construction was never completed as their owners moved away to more prosperous areas. Whatever the reason, we pass hundreds of shells of homes as we make our way from the mountain highlands of the Andes to the coast.

I can’t shake the thought that Peru reminds me a lot of Cambodia. Both countries have sharp contrasts between the simple lives of the bulk of the people and the glossy magazine images of the nation as presented to tourists. The two countries also share the propensity for livestock to wander freely across the dirt roads, their owners more concerned that they get enough to eat than that they stay on their own property. Both also have a reputation for being dangerous for independent travellers. In Peru’s case, Ellen and I have mixed feelings about how risky our trip really is.

Almost everyone has cautioned us about Peru. We’ve met several people who’ve been robbed here, and on our first day in the country somebody opened my bag in the back of a crowded collectivo (a station wagon serving as an alternative to a bus) and stole a couple of small items. I acknowledge that travelling here has some risk. But I also see the struggling communities on the side of the highway, surrounded by land devoid of nutrients, water, and topsoil for growing food, far from the nearest town with any sort of industry or employment to support the local population. When I look at these hopeless shantytowns, I’m hardly surprised that foreign tourists look like easy pickings and are a temptation some can’t resist.

Despite the actions of a few bad eggs, the people of Peru have been amazingly kind to us. We haven’t met a single local who hasn’t tried to feed us. While paying for rides is standard around here (and we’ve been warned time and again that hitchhiking is impossible and we’ll have no luck trying), we’ve had nothing but success finding drivers willing to take us exactly where we want to go at no cost to us. I’m sure as our trip continues, we’ll have a few unlucky days to balance out the good, but in the meantime, Peru is rapidly becoming our favourite country so far.

Ellen and I are on the road again, and I’ve come to a realization: we are terrible at travelling in cities. The two of us just don’t know what to do when we’re in any place larger than a town.

The city that prompted this self-reflection is the one we’re in right now: Cuenca, Ecuador. Internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca features gorgeous stone architecture nestled amongst the mountains of the highlands. The historical centre contains dozens of churches with stunningly handcarved wooden doors and bell towers that sparkle in the sunlight. A river rushes through town, and its banks are lined with stone pathways and willows. The city is everything a traveller could want – and Ellen and I don’t have the faintest idea what to do with ourselves. Luckily, we had lined up a place to stay with a French-Canadian couple through couchsurfing, and had the benefit of local residents’ advice to help us figure out what to see.

Our couchsurfing hosts recommended we check out one of the city’s many markets, so our first stop was a huge warehouse not too far from our hosts’ home. We were up too late for the livestock trading, but there were still half a dozen vendors at the market entrance selling poultry, puppies, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Inside the bustling building was a maze of stands and stalls displaying all manner of foodstuffs, housewares, clothing, and restaurant equipment. We came to the market hungry, but had to do several laps of the food stands before we felt ready to decide on something to eat – there were just so many options. I’d hoped to eat something typical of the region, like cuy (barbecued guinea pig), but most of the charcoal grills weren’t up and running yet, so we settled on breakfast at a crowded stall at the market entrance. We didn’t know what half the dishes were and had no clue what to order, but the lady at the stand dished us up some stewed pork skin, potatoes in sauce, rice, corn, and egg for the reasonable price of $1.25 each. Satisfied, we wandered the market one last time to get supplies for the next couple of days’ meals before moving on to the downtown core for some sightseeing.

Market breakfast - inexpensive and tasty!

Market breakfast – inexpensive and tasty!

Our hosts had mentioned a river walk from the market to the centre of town, so Ellen and I meandered along the north side of the waterfront. After a few recent days of rain, the babbling brook was a rushing torrent, but we still couldn’t hear it over the traffic on the road either side of the riverfront green space. At several places, the trail forced us to cross the busy streets without the benefit of crosswalks or signals, dodging buses and taxis as we sprinted across the roundabouts. We felt relieved to reach the stone walls of the historical centre and leave the riverside behind.

The town of Cuenca, once we finally reached it, was lovely indeed. We admired the churches, took photos of the prettily painted buildings, and sat in the park to watch the birds hop between the trees. There were a handful of tourists, but not very many compared to some other cities in South America, and the town had the vibe of an artsy community rather than just a tourist destination on the Inca trail. One of the bars in town was advertising poetry nights, and several portrait photographers were set up with old-fashioned cameras in the main park, waiting for couples and families to pass by. Our Canadian hosts had marked the local microbrewery on our map (knowing our passion for good beer), so after an hour of wandering town we headed over to the taphouse to sample a local brew. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet, and wouldn’t be for several hours.

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca's centro historico

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca’s centro historico

Graffiti in Cuenca - "Without poetry there is no city"

Graffiti in Cuenca – “Without poetry there is no city”

This was the point at which I realized we suck at passing time in cities. We had seen the churches. We had sat in the parks. We had done our shopping. What more could we possibly do? The city was full of people, all going about their business and doing things. What on earth was everybody doing? We were trying to conserve money, but indulged in a fifty-cent coffee for the chance to sit in the tiny Colombian coffee shop and play cribbage for an hour or two. We went back to the park and watched people while discussing the lifestyle here versus at home. We looked at the recommended walking tours listed on the tourist map, and got ourselves slightly lost trying to follow the directions. We found a jewelry market which was not particularly interesting to us, although we stopped to admire some cute stud earrings that were out of our price range. We eventually made our way to the craft and textiles market featured on the tourist map, but again the items were overpriced and very similar to those we’d seen in every craft market from Costa Rica on south. That didn’t stop us browsing, but we were very aware that we were only looking at the handicrafts because we had more time to kill before the brewpub opened.

At long last, four o’clock rolled around and Cuenca’s only microbrewery opened its doors. Ellen and I were almost the first clients in the door of the pub. There were only five beers on the menu (along with a variety of mixed drinks like Irish Car Bombs and Stout with Chocolate), and two of them were stouts (which Ellen and I aren’t that fond of), so we decided to taste the blond, the red, and the amber ales. We didn’t need to worry too much about blowing our budget – half a liter of beer was $2.25. Despite our being the only customers in the pub, it took the waitress a good ten minutes to pull the pints and bring us our drinks.

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I had ordered the La Compañia Extra Golden Beer, while Ellen sampled the Misionera Irish Red Beer. Both were much nicer than the standard pilsner which is sold everywhere in Ecuador, but slightly disappointing as far as craft brewed beer is concerned. I thought the beer lacked something in its flavour, but couldn’t define the problem. Ellen, who is much more knowledgeable about brewing than me, pointed out that both beers had problems with the balance between malt and hops. She found they were too high in protein, giving them a slight issue in taste and a cloudy look. Ellen’s red beer was a bit too sweet, while my blond ale was bitter but was lacking body. Despite the drinks not being perfect artisan beer, they were more than satisfying, especially after the plain pilsners we’d been drinking on the farm. We couldn’t get any beer to take with us, but enjoyed every drop we drank in the comfortable and cozy pub before walking home in the setting sun.

Mmm! Craft beer!

Mmm! Craft beer!

Today, Ellen and I are leaving Cuenca to go south again, stopping in Loja tonight where we’ve arranged another couchsurfing experience before hitting the Peruvian border tomorrow. One day in the charming city of Cuenca was enough for us. As we think about it, we’re going to avoid staying in cities as we go through Peru. On the road, we’ve derived much of our pleasure from watching the farms as we pass – seeing how the houses are constructed, what crops grow in the region, and what livestock the locals are raising. As we continue on our journey into Peru, we’re going to try to ask farmers if we can camp in their fields, rather than spending our nights in crowded cities. It’s not that we dislike cities, we’re just not very good at finding things to do in them.

My first impressions of Quito weren’t that great, I admit. However, after being admonished by several friends who had loved the city, I decided to put my first thoughts aside and focus on getting a feeling for the city instead. After spending a week running errands and sightseeing in Quito’s core, I’ve come to appreciate the place a lot more than I expected.

Quito feels very big, both in geography and population. I was staying far outside of town, and the buses into the Centro Historico were regularly packed, and often delayed by traffic where they didn’t have dedicated lanes. The buses felt very safe, though – even pressed into the throng of people, I didn’t fear for my wallet. Most of the time when I was standing, men would offer me their seats. Moments later, I had to give them up for mothers or fathers carrying infants, retirees, or young men with their limbs in casts, but over the course of one hour-long bus ride, I was offered at least six people’s seats. Considering the men offered me their seats without the usual pick-up line, I was doubly impressed.

Getting off the bus in the historical centre was an assault on the senses. Hundreds of people were going this way and that, selling, buying, and calling out to passersby. Dozens of women in traditional dress moved through the crowd, with bags of apples, avocados, mandarin oranges, grapes, and more kinds of local fruit than I could name. Their high-pitched sales calls reminded me of auctioneers, imploring us at piercing levels to buy their wares. “Mandarina, mandarina, un dollar, un dollar, mandarina un dollar, mandarina un dollar!” Vendors were everywhere, selling ice cream, gum, coca leaves, phone cards, jackets, coffee filters, TV antennas, anything you could imagine. None of the sales pitches were aggressive, though – I felt free to wander the area without buying anything.

Walking up the hill toward the main square of the Centro Historico, it occurred to me that I had been spoiled by beautiful cities in Colombia. The historical buildings in Quito were interspersed with concrete block monstrosities that ruined the effect for me. I had also come to expect window boxes bursting with colourful blossoms, and I wasn’t appreciating the architecture nearly as much without them. In places, though, I was stunned by the beauty surrounding me. Many grand buildings like churches used intense green roofing tiles – I couldn’t tell if they were some kind of stone or ceramic tiles finished in a deep green glaze.

Beautiful green roof tiles

Beautiful green roof tiles

While I was pulling out my phone to take a picture of one building’s incredible roof, a man in a yellow shirt stopped in his tracks, and then made a beeline for me. I looked at him, and he immediately pretended to be interested in something on the ground. I turned back to my photo, and he tried to sidle up behind me. I moved about ten feet away from him, and he started wandering in my direction, innocently looking at something else. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to pickpocket me, rob me, or do a snatch-and-run theft of my phone, but luckily his approach was unsubtle enough that I was able to get the heck out of there before he did.

I hadn’t planned to do anything particularly touristy, but ended up having a few extra hours to kill, so I walked up to the Basilica at the top of the hill. I had seen its towers from almost every corner of the city, but hadn’t realized just how huge it was! I spent almost an hour wandering around the outside of the building, trying to capture its scale and grandeur in a photograph. I came close, but I think the task was impossible.

My phone's new panorama software doesn't do the Basilica justice.

My phone’s new panorama software doesn’t do the Basilica justice.

There was less than an hour left before closing when I finally bought my ticket to go inside. (Worshippers can enter for free, but aren’t allowed to climb the cathedral’s towers and view the city below.) The second story was lit by incredible stained glass windows, full of bright images of flowers amongst the saints. There was a huge pipe organ in the corner, but the hymns echoing through the stone columns must have been coming from somewhere else. They were lovely to hear nonetheless.

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With every step I took, the building became more amazing. Peepholes in the stone staircases gave glimpses of gargoyles in the shape of local birds and wildlife. I stepped out at the top to see the lookout over the city below. It was high. Cars looked like tinkertoys, and people were the size of ants. The sound of hymns from the worshippers had receded and was replaced with the far-off noise of traffic, barking dogs, and car horns. I was alone at the top of the wall, and it felt like I was miles above everyone else in the world. I looked over at another incredible tower on the other side of the church, where dozens of people were snapping pictures, but decided not to go there. Instead, I got tempted by a tiny sign pointing to a winding metal stair – “clock tower and belfry”.

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Gargoyle

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View from the roof

I’ll admit here, I’m not comfortable with heights. The tiny staircase kept going up and up, six revolutions of white-knuckle climbing, gripping my bag in one hand and the rail in the other, as if my life depended on it. The ticking of the giant clock felt like the ominous soundtrack to my climb, drowning out every noise but the sound of my footsteps on the winding metal stair. And then, I reached the top and looked down. The only way I could think to describe it was “ass-clenching”. As I took a couple of pictures, I noticed it was time for the church to be closing. I gratefully retreated to solid ground, although I was proud of myself for making it to the top.

Yikes!

Yikes!

On the way back to the bus, the street was echoing with the sounds of rhythmic chanting and singing. A capoeira class was in progress in an open studio, and dozens of young men sat in a circle, keeping the beat while watching two black teenagers spinning and twirling in mock battle. A blond woman sat apart from the group, camera at the ready. I thought about popping in, but it was going to be dark soon, and I had a long bus ride back to the suburbs.

Ellen and I have heard a lot about couchsurfing, and many broke long-term travellers recommend it highly. Until I got to Quito, though, neither of us had couchsurfed before. We’ve glanced a few times through potential hosts’ profiles, but so many of them read suspiciously like personals ads that we never bothered trying to find accommodation through the site. This week my feelings on the matter have changed after staying with a friend of Ingo’s who lives near the airport. Staying at someone’s house has some huge advantages over hostels!

Steve's garden is absolutely amazing!

Steve’s garden is absolutely amazing!

The most obvious benefit of staying with a local is the financial savings. The cheapest hostel room I found was $8 a night (although I didn’t look far). Spending a week at Steve’s house saved me at least $50. Not only that, but I have the use of Steve’s kitchen, which is much better outfitted than a hostel’s shared kitchen, as well as a bathroom that I never have to line up for, and unlimited access to a washing machine that I don’t have to pay for. When you add up those benefits, I’ve probably saved at least another $20, especially on meals that I didn’t eat out.

Another huge advantage is having a local insider to give you directions and suggestions on places to go. Here I lucked out as well – Steve first came to Ecuador 40 years ago, and has plenty of information to help me get all my errands done. He doesn’t know as much about tourist sites, but his sister-in-law Dora who lives nearby has plenty of advice to offer me. My running around town has been much more pleasant than I expected, mostly because I can pick Steve and Dora’s brains on where to go.

One of the prettier streets in Quito - nice to have someone tell you where the nice views are!

One of the prettier streets in Quito – nice to have someone tell you where the nice views are!

Another sweet building that reminds me of Cartagena (fewer flowers, though - Cartagena still wins nicest city award!)

Another sweet building that reminds me of Cartagena (fewer flowers, though – Cartagena still wins nicest city award!)

The best part of this couchsurfing experience, though, has to be feeling welcomed at somebody’s home, rather than like a tourist in a hostel. Steve has been an amazing host – when I mentioned that I was hoping to read more about natural building techniques, he brought out half a dozen books on the subject that I could browse through. His library on customizing WordPress has inspired me to play around with my blog more over the next few months, and we’ve been having animated conversations on all sorts of topics.

Steve's brother-in-law built this gorgeous natural house.

Steve’s brother-in-law built this gorgeous natural house.

The absolute highlight, though, is that Steve is a distributor for the artisan brewery in Canoa whose beer Ellen and I tasted on our trip to the beach. The brews are only available by the keg, but Steve has a fridge full of bottled samples, of which he said I could help myself to two or three of each kind. That’s exactly what I’m planning on doing this afternoon, in a hammock in Steve’s beautiful garden, with my sketchbook on my lap and a steady supply of nice cold microbrew next to me. I can’t even remember – why was I unenthusiastic about couchsurfing again?

One of my goals for this trip was to find a place that felt like home. I’ve never enjoyed cold weather – even Vancouver winters get too chilly for me, and the grey skies bring me down. I’ve often thought that I should relocate somewhere warmer, but before this trip I had never taken any steps in that direction. The problem is that I’m not sure what kind of place I’m looking for. There are many places in the world that are warmer than Vancouver in the winter; I need some more specific requirements for my future home. The good thing about travelling, though, is that I have the chance to see, explore, and spend time in many places, evaluating each of them as the potential location of my house and home for the next few years.

Costa Rica was beautiful. Wild yet accessible, it was a hotspot for tourists from all over the world. I found, though, that it wasn’t foreign enough for me. There were lots of English speakers everywhere I went. Many of the travellers I met wanted exactly that – a place to visit that gave them a taste of another country with none of the inconveniences. I can respect that; when you’re on vacation, you don’t want to have to put a huge amount of effort into arranging every activity in a language you don’t speak well. I, however, want to be forced to immerse myself in Spanish. I’m frankly disappointed when the waiter addresses me in English. Costa Rica’s tourism industry is too well-developed for me, and so Costa Rica isn’t going to be home for the next few years.

Ellen admires the view at a very well-maintained, very tourist-oriented, very expensive volcano in a park in Costa Rica

Ellen admires the view at a very well-maintained, very tourist-oriented, very expensive volcano in a park in Costa Rica

I didn’t stay long enough in Panama to evaluate its potential as a home, but certainly the San Blas islands were paradise on Earth. Unfortunately, they were also prohibitively expensive. With no fresh water source, a limited ability to grow one’s own food, and little economic activity outside of selling trinkets to tourists on sailboats, the tropical paradise will probably be nothing more than a wonderful vacation destination for me.

Heaven on Earth, but inaccessible and expensive for long-term living

Heaven on Earth, but inaccessible and expensive for long-term living

Cartagena, on the other hand, astounded me with its architecture and friendly people. The old town centre felt welcoming, safe, and removed enough from North American culture to appease my appetite for the unknown. People spoke to me in Spanish almost exclusively, and were matter-of-fact in their assumption that I would understand them. The locals were used to tourists, but shared the city on their own terms. I could see myself living a year or more in Cartagena, but the heat there is intense. Ellen and I found ourselves exhausted and sniping at each other around midday each day, until we decided to institute a mandatory siesta every afternoon. If I decided to live in Cartagena for very long, I’d have to figure out a job and lifestyle that allowed me to avoid the heat of the midday sun and get my work done in the early morning and in the cool of the evening. I left the city with the idea of living there someday resting in the back of my mind. Certainly, I will go back to Cartagena someday.

The most wonderful time of day in sunny Cartagena

The most wonderful time of day in sunny Cartagena

More than anywhere else I’ve been, though, Ecuador has the potential to be home. Mindo, my base of operations for the last six weeks, is warm in the morning but not too hot, and cools off in the afternoons with its regular rain showers in wet season. Everywhere I look feels alive. Birds sing, chirp, and flutter between trees. Insects buzz and hum in every direction, and I never tire of examining the spiders, beetles, butterflies and caterpillars that I find wherever I look. Trees are always green, fruit can be harvested year-round, flowers bloom in every season, and even in the rainy months the sun shines every day. The Ecuadorians I’ve met have been friendly, cheerful, and chatty. My host at the farm, Genny, assures me that if I were to look for a teaching job in Quito, I would have no trouble finding one, and could probably find work in any large town in the country as well. I hesitate to look into teaching jobs, though, as my heart is much deeper into writing at the moment. At every turn I am inspired with book ideas, and yet I am so busy taking it all in that I’ve barely written a word. Luckily, I don’t need to do either at the moment. My travel funds have not run out yet, so I can put off finding a job for a few more months. Finding a home, on the other hand, is an endless pursuit. So far, the farther south I get, the closer to home I feel. I can’t wait to see where I end up!

Home sweet home someday?

Home sweet home someday?