Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos, crossing the Andes, waking up with altitude sickness, being whacked with herbs by a shaman, cramming a 2 week Spanish language course, and partying with locals for Carnaval – who knew this little country was so much fun.

When I announced to Phil that our next travel adventure would be to the continent of South America, his response was “Why?” But the day after we arrived, he turned to me and said, “We need to stay longer!” He loved what he was seeing in our first stop, Ecuador.

Independence Square, Quito’s main plaza

How delighted we were to wake up on our first morning in this lovely old colonial city of Quito (pronounced key-toe), capital of Ecuador. Our hotel, located in the historical district, had been built in 1698 by a wealthy Spaniard. It had adobe walls that were 2 feet thick. We felt right at home since it had the same name as our hometown, San Francisco. That is the former name of Quito also – San Francisco de Quito.

Quito is the highest capital city in the world at 9,350 feet above sea level. Did that altitude ever hit me! The morning after our late arrival I woke up with a swollen face. (I’m not showing a photo of THAT!) My body ached, I was short of breath and I had a headache – the sure signs of altitude sickness.

Our travel doc had given us altitude meds for Machu Picchu in Peru, but we didn’t think we would need them for Ecuador. And we didn’t take them. My symptoms passed after a few days. Coca tea helped (though our doc had told us that if we used coco we would “test positive” for drugs. We don’t plan on getting tested….)

Coco tea helped with altitude sickness

When I finally did feel good enough to explore Quito, I found a lot to love about it. It had its origins in the 1st millennium, was conquered by the Incas, and the Spanish took control in 1534. It established its independence 300 years later, under the command of Simon Bolivar, known as The Liberator. Its historical district is said to be one of the largest, least altered and best preserved in the Americas and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the middle of the world

Quito is almost smack on the equator. Just a short drive from the city and we were standing on the equatorial line – dubbed “the middle of the world”. The snow-capped Andes volcano Cotopaxi, itself on the equator, served as our backdrop.

Walking on the Equator

The snow-capped Andes volcano Cotopaxi served as our backdrop at the Equator.

Imagine Phil’s delight when his compass showed zero latitude! How cool is that?

Oh no, not elections….

Try as we might to escape politics, we were in Ecuador during their presidential elections and saw a lot of campaigning. We learned that all Ecuadorians are required to vote or they have to pay a fine.

It is illegal in Ecuador to drink alcohol on the days preceding the election. One restaurant did sell beer to us tourists, but requested that we sit in a corner out of sight to drink it! It turned out that no candidate received the required majority, so a runoff is scheduled for later. Local people we talked to were rather distressed that something fishy was going on.

Campaigning in the streets for one of the major candidates for President of Ecuador

Relegated to the corner to drink our beer,  which is illegal during the election


A true “bucket list” place for me, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are about 600 miles off the coast. They are well known as one of the best places in the world to see endemic wildlife. Because of its isolation, 80% of the land-based animals on the archipelago are only found there.The most famous is probably the giant tortoises, weighing in at around 1,000 pounds. They are the largest in the world and can live to be over 100 years old.

Since you know my sense of humor, you will appreciate this next photo I took. “Coochie-coochie”, as our guide called it, takes over 4 hours with these big ‘uns. I couldn’t bear to stand around for the whole thing. It was painful enough watching how many time the guy on top slid off….

While in Ecuador we researched how to “affordably” get on a ship to experience the Galapagos. We were lucky enough to find one with a cancellation that was leaving in a couple of days. The ship was lovely. There were 16 guests, a very international group. Among us were 2 Canadians, 2 Germans on an around-the-world trip, 2 Chinese, 2 Brazilians, 2 Indian-Americans with their daughter who is attending Princeton, and 5 others from the USA. We had 9 Ecuadorian crew members.

Often, the crew moved the ship to our next island while we slept. We would have a big breakfast and then go ashore or for a snorkel with our guide to see the animals. When we returned to the ship, we’d have a snack, a rest, lunch and then take a hike and/or snorkel again. We saw a lot of fascinating animals, including my first penguins! We even saw them swimming, which you can see in the 2nd photo in the series below.

we swam with sharks

And we swam with rays. I can’t believe I did that. There were white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads, and Galapagos sharks. Phil is quite the waterman, so I like to hold onto his hand while snorkeling. During trips when the guide said sharks would be present, Phil brought a metal walking stick underwater with him in case he needed to ward them off. I could feel him physically tighten up whenever they appeared. Fortunately, the creatures just peacefully swam around under us and didn’t seem to give a hoot that we were there.

We also got to swim with baby sea lions who were very playful with us. They got so close it was almost like they wanted me to touch them, except that they swam by quite fast. These were the times I wished I had an underwater camera.

Going Higher

When we returned from the Galapagos to mainland Ecuador, we had a driver take us from the coast across the Andes mountains to a town farther south. The drive took us through El Cajas National Park which stands at 4,167 meters, or 13,671 feet. We stopped at the top of these Andes mountains, but didn’t even try to walk around in this high place. We just got back in the car and ate chocolate to make us feel better. Ecuador has some very good chocolate.

Here’s a photo of our driver’s altimeter:

cuenca-a city loved by ex-pats (and me)

We crossed the Andes to get to the lovely town of Cuenca (pronounced qween-ka), more to the southeast of EcuadorAmong its other attributes, it seems to be a haven for ex-pats. We met many Americans and other foreigners who were very happy to have moved there. Some lived in an ex-pat conclave, called “gringolandia” which we didn’t like at all. Others lived in areas where Ecuadorian locals lived, which we found much more agreeable.

Cuenca, and Ecuador in general, is a very affordable place to live with a lot to like about it, such as cultural events and festivals. If Cuenca had an ocean, it could be in the running for our place to one day “settle down” in. It would certainly stretch the dollar, so to speak. During our visit, we rarely paid over $20-30 for a lovely dinner out with drinks. For lodging in Cuenca, we stayed in a terrific hotel not far from the main square that had 3 beds, 2 desks, an en-suite bathroom, a sitting room, a balcony and breakfast each morning for $36 per night total!

Our room is number 6, upstairs on the left.


We took a private Spanish language course for 2 weeks in Cuenca at a school named after the great general, Simon Bolivar. Was the course ever intense! We had a wonderful teacher, Patricia, for just the two of us for 4 hours every day. Plus we had a 2nd teacher, Viviana, who was our cultural teacher. Viviana took us to markets, museums, ruins and other sights all over town, all the while speaking to us mainly in Spanish.

Additionally, a couple of times a week, we would attend an evening demonstration by the school director Marco of typical Ecuadorian cocktails or food. In the photos below you can see some items from the school’s food demonstration. Our featured cocktail was canelazo, a cinnamon liquor, warmed with lemon, orange, sugar and hot water.

The food dish Marco made on another night was mote pillo, a large-kerneled white corn somewhat like hominy, cooked with eggs, onions and an achiote-flavored oil. This red spice is also called annatto and is used by some indigenous people for body or hair paint or for lipstick. The food and drink were delicious and the experience in the school’s kitchen with other students from all over the world was enriching.

On top of all that we spent at least 2 hours per day doing homework! Did I say it was intense???

Did we learn to speak Spanish in 2 weeks? Maybe in 2 years, although some say it takes 5 years or more. It has been very useful to us in our further travels in South America, by helping us in reading signs, menus, etc., and in speaking a few words or phrases that are sometimes miraculously understood. It was very much worth the time and effort and we plan to continue learning over time.

The best part is the People of Ecuador

To a person, everyone we met was pleasant, friendly, helpful and kind to us. In my understanding, the people of Ecuador are made up of 3 broad ancestries. There are the first inhabitants of the area, the indigenous peoples, who have been there for 11,000 years. There are the Spaniards, who came and conquered in 1532. And there are the mestizos, or mixed, with both Spanish and indigenous blood. As is true in many parts of the world, a huge number of indigenous people were decimated by diseases brought by the conquerers.

I was fascinated by the indigenous and mestizos, many of whom maintained their native dress.

My cultural teacher from the Spanish language school asked me whether I would like to have a healing treatment by a curandera, or indigenous healer. Of course I would. This beautiful woman first had me smell a bunch of herbs and plants. I didn’t notice at the time that there may have been some ‘stinging nettle’ type plants among them. It sure felt like it when she whacked me with them. Take a look at the video below. The sound she is making is to get rid of the “evil spirits” or whatever the culprit is.

(If the video doesn’t appear, kindly refresh the page.)

IMG_1579 2 from CarolSue Ayala on Vimeo.

After the herb slapping, she rubbed me all over with an unbroken eggs, then cracked the egg into a plastic bag and “read” what it said. The diagnosis – “nervosa, muy estresado y asustado” – nervous, very stressed and scared. Me?

She then took a swig of a liquid concoction of herbs and alcohol into her mouth and literally spit it under my shirt onto my chest and back. Hopefully, that finally got rid of all those bad things I had! She finished me off by putting 3 crosses on my head, back and belly.


Carnaval in Ecuador is a b-i-g holiday. The people really get into the revelry. We saw 2 things they really like a lot  – foam and water. The foam is a substance much like shaving cream that is sold in canisters all over the town. Everybody from young to old seems to have one with their finger on the trigger. And if you are anywhere on the streets, you are going to get sprayed by the foam.

The same for water. They spray it, shoot it, throw it, and dump it from above. (You can think for yourself whether or not I liked that….) They even make a ritual of sitting in a chair and having a bucket of water dumped over them – and it’s chilly in Ecuador! The parades are fun, but you will get sprayed with something while viewing them.

The food in ecuador

We had to try the local delicacy in Ecuador – the Cuy, or guinea pig. It didn’t sound appetizing at first but I decided to give it a try. How did it taste, you ask? Like chicken, of course.

Cuy has more uses in Ecuador. One of our guides told us about how cuy are also used for healing. When someone gets sick, the shaman rubs a live guinea pig all over the sick person’s body. Then the healer opens up the little guy and uncovers from its insides what disease you had, that is now gone, thanks to the guinea pig. You don’t eat these particular cuy – I made sure to ask.

Corn, or maize, is said to be the single most important gift of the Americas to the world. There are many varieties of corn in Ecuador and it is served often. We would find popcorn on the tables at restaurants, sometimes with a sauce in which to dip the kernels. Potatoes abound, too, and there are many, many varieties. Agriculture is very important to Ecuador and is a major source of their export income. Indigenous people brought their agricultural products to market everyday in the cities and we loved to go see what they had.

A funny thing we saw being sold on the streets was ice cream cones that didn’t melt. It really perplexed Phil and me. Come to find out it was a type of merengue. I had no desire to try it, though it was quite pretty, and a lot of locals liked it. See a photo in the group below.

Phil’s favorite food of all

I hope you have enjoyed this post about our 5 weeks in the lovely country of Ecuador. Have you been to Ecuador? Do you have any desire to go? I would love to hear your comments in the section below. I look forward to hearing from you. 

19 responses to “WE’RE IN SOUTH AMERICA – ECUADOR”

  1. Carole Kahn says:

    CS……btw: we are headed to Greece for end of Sept & Oct. Dont remember if you’ve already been there. Any recommendations for places to stay? What not to miss? After a 2 week guided tour, mostly the outer islands, we’ll then have another 2 weeks to explore on our own, starting once again with Athens. enjoy……..C

  2. Carole Kahn says:

    Awesome Carol Sue!! and Phil too!
    Though we love living on our island Kaua’i, it IS just a tiny speck, though a jewel, and there’s an entire world out there to explore. I love reading your blog, seeing your photos. Marty & I don’t have as much time as you two , (I ‘demand” at least a month at a time) tho traveling is one of our great loves. Experiencing other people and their cultures, tasting foods and exploring beautiful landscapes, music, art, animals, color and all the markets……all there to enrich our lives. I hope we all can be sensitive to the world around us, giving back whenever we can as we are gifted with so much. Happy trails………love, C

  3. Rocky Riedel says:

    Oh that was great, CarolSue! I so enjoy reading your blog and am so happy you guys are having such fun!

    Rocky xoxoxo

  4. Elsa Dixon says:

    Hi CarolSue!
    What an enthralling rendering of your adventure. Having been to Galapagos, the Amazon and Equador in March this year, you supplemented my experiences with so much rich detail – I did not have so much time available! I passed out in the airplane just before landing in Quito, and had 5 doctors on board attending to me – they were on their way to a medical conference! Altitude sickness – absolutely awful. Some local pharmacist (also the qualified beautician) on Santa Cruz gave me some very cheap pills for the flight back. Planning a trip to Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru in March next year – maybe we can meet up somewhere!

  5. patricia troxel says:

    Your trip sounds wonderful. Keep the blogs coming.

  6. Jeannie Smith says:

    As usual your description and knowledge of the many places you visited was so informative. The places you stayed were beautiful and so authentic. You and Phil are so fortunate to have the good health to live your dream. Many of us, due to bad health of a spouse or them self, are not able to travel as you and Phil ….so thank you for letting me live a dream through your travels. Be safe and look forward to the next adventure. And loved all the pictures too.

  7. Molly Hall says:

    I really enjoyed reading about your latest journeys, as always. What good examples you both are in fearlessly exploring. Thanks so much for sharing the great photos and writing such good descriptions. I’ve never been to Ecuador or most of these places, so your posts help me get at least a little feel for them via armchair travel!

  8. Pete Hueseman says:

    CarolSue: Looks like another fabulous trip, lots of fun, seeing and learning all about new things. Stay safe.

  9. Rita Peeters says:

    Aloha CarolSue and Phil!
    As I told you before CarolSue, you two are living my dream life.
    I have actually been thinking the past three years or so about moving to Ecuador eventually.
    Do you need a videographer for that travel show you should do? (•_•)
    Thank you so much for your stories!!!
    Much Aloha from Kaua`i,

  10. Connie says:

    So happy to read the stories! Sounds like you are having a blast!

  11. Pamella DeFrancis says:

    It is interesting, as always. You should do a TV travelogue! I am curious if you were aware of the food shortages in Argentina? They get quite a bit of press in the ag news in the US. I love the local photos. Thanks again.

  12. Paula Zina says:

    Living in Cuenca Ecuador, and had the pleasure to have met you and Phil, it is heart warming to have read your impressions of Ecuador. It is exactly why we are here, and enjoying this life. The beautiful land, the generous people, their culture, the beautiful architectures and stories of the past , long gone by now, but lots of remnants that keeps the memories alive.
    Thank you for this e mail, be well, happy travels.
    With love for you and Phil, from Cuenca, Ecuador.

  13. Steve Hoch says:

    You make Equador into a must-see! Seems like such a fun place. Keep the posts coming!

  14. Roger and Roberta Cable says:

    Thanks for your colorful and informative stories. It makes you want to jump on a plane and get out of town. Although you know we live in the best place in the world. We are looking forward to more travel in the future. We did get to Europe last year and thanks to your stories we have lots of idea’s for our next trip. All the best to you and Phil, enjoy and stay healthy.

  15. Pat Crouse says:

    As always a lovely and comprehensive story. I must say I love all the artitecture and colorful surroundings. The people look like they would be very warm and welcoming and apparently they are. You are very brave to try the local foods. I on the other hand am not sure I would be so open to things I’m not sure about. However, the way you write about it does make me curious.

    Can’t wait to hear about the next destination and all the wonderful adventures that are awaiting you and Phil.

  16. Don Savage says:

    Carol…..Great report. Makes me want to follow in your footsteps. Also having the Galapagos on our bucket list, would you share the “how to “affordably” get on a ship”…..We get the glossy brochures in the mail that are always on the very pricy side.

    • CarolSue says:

      Good question, Don. We made a list of ships we were interested by reading reviews online, etc. Then we looked up their offices and paid them a visit or wrote them on their site and said we are here and can go any day. Several offered us reduced prices, and we took the best one that had the itinerary and price we wanted. Time was on our side because we had flexibility. We didn’t care if it was this week or next, so to speak. Others in our group got a reduced rate from home by asking, but not as reduced. Some people on our ship paid full price so it’s kind of strange how it works. Happy to answer other questions when you need. Hope you go. CarolSue

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