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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