Llama La Vida

Ecuador’s slogan is “Ama La Vida”. It means “love life”, more-or-less, but isn’t quite translatable. I’m not sure what exactly it’s a slogan for, but you see it everywhere. I prefer “Llama la Vida”. Anyway, I did my best to do exactly that with my last month in the Andes of South America.

My last month in Ecuador has become a rewarding whirlwind of final projects, exhausting bus rides, and crazy adventures – ranging from snorkeling in the Pacific to exploring South America’s oldest cities to bushwhacking through remote rainforests. Over the past few days (I am in my last day in Quito) it has come to the inevitable tears and hugs of our final goodbyes. My friends from the east coast, Canada, Germany, Britain, and Burma have all boarded their planes home, and the goodbyes were painful. Some of them I had become close to, others I can only wish I had spent more time with. I’ve said goodbye to my teachers – Claudia, Marcia, Julie, Sabrina. I see my favorite neighborhood dog. Chocolate wags his tail, not understanding that I’ll never see him again. He expects that I’ll bring a piece of bread from the bakery, as I always do. But, speaking of goodbyes, Galo will have to find someone else to give the left over pastries to. Hopefully Chocolate doesn’t get hungry. I say goodbye to some friends I met on the Quito Ultimate team, and to friends I met while birding at Parque Carolina.

It’s hard to sum up this past month. Fiestas de Quito – the celebrations of Quito’s foundation – occured in early December. I went with Alden and Chris to a Concert, with Christian and Jalese to Banditos, and with a bunch of Oregon friends to El Mosaico, a restaurant overlooking beautiful Quito. There are too many stories – exploding buildings, mitad del mundo, crazy trans-city adventures – to recount them all, too many foods – colada morada, homemade empadas, fresh canelazos – to remember.

Classes ended December 11th. The palm-lined fish pond and bustling traffic circle out front of USFQ are things that I won’t see back home, nor the lunch restaurants and all-too-familiar markets. My first day at the university became a jumble of questions. Many I resolved, all with a story behind them. Where the heck does that little green bus go? Is that lady really selling chicken-foot soup? Others I didn’t.

On the Saturday after classes end, I visited Cotopaxi (the world’s highest active volcano at over 20,000 feet), climbing to 5000 meters on the glacier with friends from Boston. The day was beautiful, the golden paramo endless.

I thought that I’d be out of Quito to explore the rest of the country as soon as I could, maybe even heading to Peru; after all, I had two and a half weeks. Instead, I linger. Chris and I visit Mitad del Mundo and parts of the city we haven’t yet gotten to know. Final outings to the Foch, last runs through Bicentenario, and exciting market visits help me “cerrar con un brocho de oro”.

In Puerto Lopez, we are greeted by relentless tour-guides trying to sell us trips to Isla de La Plata, even in the pre-dawn, muggy air in the tiny bus station on the outskirts of town. We see hints of dry, shrubby hills and hear distant splashing waves. In town, restaurants dotting the street corners share the quiet town with Api and the other stray dogs. Fishermen are busy at work along the shore; it is almost dawn, and they are preparing for a long day.

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Guayaquil is different, busy, warm. The sun sets over the faro; after that we find some dinner. We are out of the city by the next morning, Cajas-bound. Cajas is a beautiful high-elevation national park. There, we hike to a lonely mountain top, overlooking one of the most deserted landscapes in the world. That night, we say goodbyes to many of our friends in Cuenca before heading south to Loja.

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Christopher and I spend the next few days birding on the west slope of the Andes. It is almost Christmas. The rainforest here is amazingly diverse: there are rainforest crabs and frogs and snakes, crying hawks and hooting monkeys overhead, shrieking parrots (the critically endangered El Oro Parakeets, too), and coatis running through the undergrowth. Tall, lush trees and flocks of flaming tanagers fill the canopy. Flower-lined swamps encroach upon the trail like a poorly-done color book. In one day we find 130 species of birds.

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The national soccer final is a fun spectacle, the game not nearly as exciting as the watching the fans. A small town, Las Pinas, turns into a jumble of parades (miles of cars with excited fans honking their horns and waving flags out their windows), booming fireworks, and shouting street vendors. Every TV in town is on. I’m surprised the electricity doesn’t run out.

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Our trip ends at Podocarpus National Park, on the eastern slope, in the headwaters of the Amazon basin. Hikes take us deep into the rainforest, until the trail is all but vanished. Occasionally exotic parakeets, umbrellabirds, and motmots appear in the trees. At night, the air fills with the sound of buzzing insects and croaking frogs. The roaring river never goes to sleep, either.

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It’s my last day in Quito. We visit the market, drinking coconut juice and fresh fruits and empanadas. I almost get a haircut – they’re so cheap here – but decide to spend the time roaming my neighborhood one last time instead. It’s a quiet Monday afternoon; I wander to the street corner not finding any skewers for sale. We head to the airport, and I say goodbye to my host family. It is my last time in UIO – Quito’s airport. A lot has happened in the past four months. I make one last painful goodbye and walk through the gates, just as the last ray of sun sinks behind the tell-tale slopes of Volcan Pichincha.

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One month left: things I’ll miss about Ecuador

I arrived in Ecuador three months ago, and in a month I will be on my way home. Five of us spent this past weekend in Tena rafting, visiting Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, and playing with monkeys. Tena marked the last major destination in Ecuador for us, so now it may be time to wind down, finish up final projects for school, and relax in Quito. Wanting to make the most of my last month here, I’ve been thinking about the ten things I will miss most about Ecuador.

10. The incredible street art in Quito.

9. Dinners that only cost $2.50.

8. Crazy bus rides; even though right now I can’t imagine missing them when I get home, I know that I will.

7. That it’s never too cold and never too warm, and you can actually swim in the ocean here.

6. Vendors on the bus selling empanadas and fresh mango.

5. Ecuador’s music.

4. My host family.

3. The natural wonders of Ecuador: birds, monkeys, beaches, waterfalls, sea turtles, lush rainforests, and 20,000 foot volcanoes.

2. Breathing, speaking, living, and dreaming in Spanish.

1. Teaching English every day on the way home from the bus stop to Galo, the security guard at the bakery up the street. I’ve even learned a bit of Quechua from him. As he would say, calla gama, which means hasta luego (which, for you English-speaking gringos, means see you later)!

Birds of Northwest Ecuador

Christopher and I just returned from three exciting days birding in northwest Ecuador, where we found 220 species of birds in less than three days. Known as the chocó region, these agriculturally-dominated foothills and subtropical woodlands in northwest Ecuador and southwest Colombia are one of the most threatened habitats in the world.

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We started our trip at a Milpe reserve, a piece of subtropical cloud forest protected from the logging that has wreaked havoc with neighboring hillsides. In the late afternoon we witnessed the amazing display of Club-winged Manakins on a jungle hillside. Their metallic clicking song is not even remotely bird-like.

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After miles of dark, windy road through foggy palm plantations, we arrive at Saturday’s destination — rainy jungle sitting above Rio Silanche — at dawn. As with Milpe, it is a hilltop patch of rainforest surrounded by logged slopes. Displaying White-bearded Manikins, two types of trogons, many toucans and parrots, and plenty of less exotic-looking birds helped us reach to over 100 species for the day by just after noon.
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Sunday begins in Mindo with the soft ringing of our alarms at 4:00am. Soon we are listening to hooting Black-and-white Owls and the melancholy whistling of Pauraques in the predawn darkness. As the sun rises, we listen to the soft whistling of a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, a species only recently described to science. The air smells thickly of leaves, and my cotton shirt clings to me in the humidity.

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We climb higher through the cloud forest, into hills far above the Nambillo River, where our morning’s trek began. Soon bird activity slows down as the sun grows high in the sky and the tree’s shadows shrink into the mid-day heat. By afternoon, thunderstorm clouds drift off Volcan Pichincha; with dropping temperatures, giant flocks of woodcreepers, barbets, and flowerpiercers appear out of nowhere in the trees. After nearly 10 kilometers of hiking uphill, we turn back.

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Our day concludes with a hilly, three kilometer detour to an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek.  Scrambling down jungle-choked ravines, crossing rickety bridges, and bounding up slippery hillsides, we just barely beat the rain to the hilltop. From the crest of the hill, we wait and wait. And wait. Finally we hear a strange raucous growling from the crown of the trees. A strawberry-red crow-sized ball of feathers suddenly appears in front of us. With shining silver wings, a huge scarlet head with a strange bulging crest, and a tiny glowing eye, this must be one of the strangest and most beautiful living creatures on earth. A rain drop falls, but the cock-of-the-rock joyously bounces his head and swings back and forth on a limb, displaying for an invisible female lurking nearby. Two more of these peculiar birds appear in the trees around us, and we watch them dance through the treetops as thunder cracks over the river and the skies open up overhead. The hike home through the downpour is a mixture of mud, exhaustion, and satisfaction. Our day couldn’t have been any more successful.

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By  six pm, fourteen hours after our day began, we had tallied over 145 species of birds, including 30 species of tanagers and an amazing 19 types of hummingbirds, ranging from green with foot-long purple tails to tiny with purple backs and glowing green heads.

Galapagos!

Day 1: Tortoises in highlands of Santa Cruz Island

The Galapagos Islands, 1000 kilometers west of mainland Ecuador, are famous for their giant tortoises, colonies of Blue-footed Boobies, and many endemic birds and wildlife species. The isolation of these islands has led to the most famous studies on evolution in history.

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We land at Baltra Airport at noon Monday, walking out to a sunny strip of cement surrounded by cactus. A warm breeze ripples through the grasses. Not far away, small yachts bob through the tranquil turquoise waters. We board a bus and head on to Puerto Ayora, on the opposite side of nearby Isla Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the largest town on the Galapagos, accounting for roughly half of the island’s population of 30,000. Many people are surprised the the islands have such a large population, which is fueled by agriculture, fishing, and of course tourism.

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After settling into our hotel and enjoying a fish lunch along the dock, we head to the island’s highlands with our guide Mauricio. First we walk through a lush Scalesia forest. Scalesia, an endemic Galapagos tree closely related to the sunflower, is home to many of Darwin’s finches. Next we visit a giant tortoise reserve, where huge tortoises nonchalantly graze on the lawn and wallow through mud pits mere meters away from us.

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The last picture there is Christopher watching the giant tortoises bathing. We tasted some Galapagos-native coffee and then returned to Puerto Ayora, where a sunset and fish-and-rice dinner (what else would we eat?) capped off the day on a great note. After dinner we visited the bustling fish market. Here’s me in an old tortoise shell:

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Day 2: Relaxing day on Bartalome

Early Tuesday we board Española II and head to Isla Bartolome, a beautiful islet whose photo appears in almost every Galapagos postcard, calendar, or tour agency website. On the two hour voyage to the island, turtles splash alongside the boat while albatrosses shearwaters glide past the bow.

Upon arriving to the island, a stubborn sea lion refusesd to move from the dock. Finally he drags himself into the calm green waters, only to get right the way of our second shuttle boat of passengers.
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The view from atop the island’s volcano awes us, as does the snorkeling in the cove below. Before we jump in, two galapagos sharks swim by. In the calm, clear waters we float with turtles, play with sea lions, and swim with school upon school of curious fish.

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Dinner back in Puerto Ayora is a delicious, freshly-caught lobster. The busy open-air restaurant is right next to the dock, where giant fish and squirming, Chihuahua- sized langostas (lobsters) are constantly being brought and sold.

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Day 3: Tortuga Bay, most beautiful beach in Ecuador

In the morning, we walk two miles to beautiful Tortuga Bay. As with 97% of the Galapagos Islands, this is protected within the national park. The bay is emerald, the rocks are covered in giant cactus trees, and the shore is dotted with tangles of enchanting manglares – mangrove trees. We spend hours here swimming in the calm waters.

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In the afternoon we snorkel in the bay of Puerto Ayora. Even so close to town, turtles, birds, exotic fish, and sea lions abound.

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Day 4: A night camping on Isabella

Isabella Island is the Galapagos’s biggest and newest island, characterized by barren volcanic craters, forests of cacti, and rocky coastlines. The harbor is amazing – Galapagos Penguins eagerly follow schools of tiny fish right below the dock, turtles float below us as we swim, and sting rays flap past us through the waters. As with every island, iguanas lounge in the path, making it hard to walk anywhere.

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A bit inland, we visit a tortoise conservation center below heading towards the hills to Campo Duro, where we camp for the night.

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Day 5: Sierra Negra Volcano

We spend five hours hiking at Sierra Negra volcano. It is the second largest caldera in the world behind Yellowstone. There is little wildlife up here but many birds. A stunningly red Vermillion Flycatcher hops out of the fog onto a barren limb, a rare Galapagos Martin chirps overhead, and a Yellow Warbler sings from the trees.

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We say goodbye to the sealions and penguins and head back to Santa Cruz, watching the sun set along the way.

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Day 6: The last of six islands: Floreana

Our last full day is spent on Floreana Island, the southernmost in the archipelago. We see tortoises, learn about the history of pirates on the islands, and snorkel off a black sand beach. Back on Santa Cruz, we play a game of pickup basketball with some neighborhood kids. As it gets later, we watch the sun set over the port. We see golden rays, black-tipped sharks, and fish swimming under the dock’s lights after dark. A small heron lands feet from us with a mini sword fish in his beak. He drops it, watches it wriggle on the tiles, and then picks it up again. Finally he slaps the fish against the ground, breaking off the razor sword, and swallows the fish whole.

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Day 7:

Alden, Christopher, and I wake up early for the sunrise, then hurry to Tortuga Bay, where we enjoy our last hour on the pristine beaches of the Galapagos. Back in town, we pack our bags and visit the Darwin Station, a tortoise captive breeding center and museum. Sadly, before we know it we’re on our way back to Quito. The day before our arrival in the Galapagos marked my half way point for my study abroad in Ecuador, but as this trip proved, a lot of adventures still lay ahead!

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Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest – finger monkeys, floating in river, and flocks of macaws

Toot-toot-too-too-too-too. A Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl whistles away from the understory of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. Fifty-three meters above, we lean over the edge of the observation tower and watch a glowing ball of orange rise from the horizon. Mist shrouds miles of unending forest canopy in every direction. Monkeys howl at each other, ants parade through the trunk-sized tree limbs, and a silky tarantula scuttles past. Crickets and insects chirp, in crescendo with the rising sun, and a thick smell of leaves, rain, and wood clings to us with the humid morning air.

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Tiputini Biodiversity Station is home to more birds, reptiles, plants, and amphibians than perhaps anywhere, and a National Geographic photographers on a quest for the world’s most biodiverse places called it the most amazing place on planet earth. Adjacent to Yasuni National Park, this research station run by USFQ (my Ecuadorian university) is a full day’s journey from Ecuador’s capital. A half hour plane ride from Quito to the small town of Coca on the banks of Rio Napo, followed by a two hour boat trip, takes us to a small road through an oil development. A two hour bus ride through the jungles takes us to the Tiputini River, the boundary of Parque Nacional Yasuni, and from there it takes several more hours of boating down the lush Tiputini River.

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We watched otters in the river, turtles on the banks, and macaws in the trees. Tiputini research station is a cluster of cabins, a research lab, and dining hall tucked amongst the trees along the river bank. As the forest turned black and the sky filled with stars, we fell asleep to the symphony of insects and birds.

Saturday got off to a good start. After a delicious breakfast, we split into smaller into smaller groups; nine of us joined our guide Ramiro and headed off through the rainforest. We found biting ants, baby snakes, and ants that taste like lemons. We tasted plants that turned our tongues blue and tattooed ourselves with strange fruits. We listened to guans and toucans, watched howler monkeys and Hoatzins, and slipped and slid our way from one amazing discovery to the next.

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The afternoon proved equally amazing, with a trip to the canopy bridges. Sitting atop the amazon, we watched birds, monkeys, lizards, and insects make their way through the canopy, and watched the orange sun sink to the horizon.

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Sunday morning Christian, Alden, Christopher, and I headed off through the darkness of the jungle at 4:30am. Atop the 50-meter observation tower by 5, we watched the sun rise and headed back to camp for a 6:30 breakfast.

Our group with Ramiro returned to the tower later in the morning. We saw between 60 and 70 species of birds, some monkeys, and insects. On our hike back to camp, an adorable Paca (a small rodent) scurried past us. We learned about the many medicinal uses of rainforest vegetation.

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I’ll get around to finishing the rest of the post in a few days, but for now here are some photos of finger-sized monkeys, creatures found during our night hike, and the amazing view during the flight home!

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Weekend in Canoa

Guayaquil Day on Friday was a holiday, so nobody had school! We decided to spend the long weekend in Canoa on the central Ecuadorian coast. The trip started Thursday afternoon when we left the bus terminal in Quito. After a seven hour bus ride to the coast, we found our hostal and went to bed.

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After a six mile barefoot beach run Friday, I ate breakfast and then surfed with Savanna, Ellen, and our instructor, Manuel. First we practiced our balancing skills on the a rope suspended between two pieces of plywood, then we further refined them by floundered around on a log. Finally we carried our surfboards into the ocean and spent two hours practicing in the, fortunately, small morning waves. By mid-afternoon we were exhausted, so we ate shrimp pasta and hung around at Surf Shak for the rest of the afternoon.

When Saturday came around we spent the day lounging around, eating seafood, and swimming in the ocean. I also ate some delicious ice cream:

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And played soccer on the beach with new Ecuadorian friends:

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Saturday night most of my friends went home, but I stayed an extra day with Christopher. Sunday we rented a canoe on a nearby lake, and in the afternoon sat on the beach drinking coconut juice and finishing up our homework.

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I’ll be back to the Pacific Ocean in exactly two weeks to visit the Galapagos Islands, but before then I have a much anticipated trip to Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the Amazon Basin!

Photo Essay: Rucu Pichincha

The main landmark for orientation in Quito is Pichincha; the base of this 15,407 foot volcano defines the western edge of the city. Nevertheless, though the climb requires no technical skills, few Quiteños actually do it. Cassidy, Tatiana, and I rode the teleferico (tram) to the base of the mountain and headed up this morning in beautiful, sunny weather. Here’s the photos!

Base of the mountain, the teleferico, and me with Quito in the background:

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Ascending:

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Day turns not-so-beautiful:

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Breaking out of the clouds near the summit:

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When I made it to the top nobody was there. Shortly afterwards I was joined by a couple from Spain, an Ecuadorian runner, somebody from France, and a few people from Switzerland. Here I am at 15,407, the highest I’ve ever been!

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Hike back down in the fog, hail, rain, and wind:

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Cuenca: Land of markets, mountains, and massive Incan ruins

At ten hours, the trip to Cuenca is one of the longest bus trips I’ve taken. Fortunately we caught a night bus, which dropped five groggy travelers (me, Christopher, Tatiana, Jalese, and Christian) off in the middle of Cuenca at 7am. From there, two hours more of bus riding took us to Ingapirca. Here, we were able to observe the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador.

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We stayed in a hostel in the historic district of Cuenca. Nearby were many old churches, bakeries, and wonderful restaurants. I tried a variety of foods, including corn pancakes. Here’s our hostel:

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My favorite day was Saturday, when Christopher and I took the bus to Cajas National Park. The high elevation park is cold, misty, and mostly tourist-free. We spent hours wandering through the paramo (grasslands). Here are some photos showing a fox, a rare hummingbird called Violet-throated Metaltail, flowers, and the strangely-shaped polylepis trees.

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We concluded the trip Sunday with a walk around town to view the street art, taste local food (how’d that chicken foot end up in my arroz con camaron??), and wander through the market.

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The bus home took a winding route through the beautiful Ecuadorian Andes. We passed through small towns nestled in the hillsides, stopping in one of them for dinner at a small roadside cafe. It got dark and we watched the sun set behind a sea of clouds in the interandean valleys to our west. The full moon slowly rose and we spent the next five hours driving through the unending, moonlit mountains.

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Otavalo Market

I went to Otavalo Saturday and Sunday with the Oregon group. At the market I bought two paintings, a hat, a jersey, and food. I had to bargain on all of the items, since they assume you will and offer a high initial price. One painting, for example, I bargained down from $60 to $30. After lunch we went to see a local group of musicians playing guitar and homemade wooden flutes. Then we went to the waterfall and afterwards headed to our hostel on Lago San Pablo. For dinner we ate tostada, mote, potato pancakes, and plancha de pollo. The lake had a nice sunset.

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The next day we went to Lago Cuicocha, a beautiful high-elevation crater lake north of Otavalo. Alden, Christopher, and I ventured up a small nearby mountain overlooking the lake and nearby valleys.

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Back in Otavalo, we enjoyed lunch and revisited the market, where I bought and alpaca sweatshirt.

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I’ve been in Quito for a month now: 31 days, 744 hours, 44640 minutes, 2678400 seconds. To celebrate I went for an eight mile run in my bathing suit through Quito in what must have been the biggest lightning storm I’ve ever witnessed (all my running shorts were in the laundry). Other highlights have been seeing a glowing red volcano, rappelling waterfalls, eating various exotic foods like flying ants and guinea pigs, meeting new friends and my host family, swimming and seeing flamingos on the Ecuadorian coast, and improving my Spanish skills. Next up are trips to the Otavalo, Esmeraldas, Galapagos, and the Amazon. Here’s to a great next month!