DESTINATION UNKNOWN

'We Have No Idea Where We're Going'

We decided to send our writer and his wife somewhere they knew nothing about. And we weren't even telling them where until the day they were leaving. At least that was the plan...

By Jason Cohen, Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007, 12:00 AM

Susan pondering an alpaca sweater in Saquisilí (Susan Shepard)

Editor's note: These days, there are times when it feels like no matter where in the world you're going, you already know everything about it. Your guidebooks have clued you in to all the must-see monuments and museums. When choosing a hotel, you thoroughly researched other travelers' opinions; when you booked your room, you saw 360-degree views on the hotel's website and you may have even seen the very bed that you'll be sleeping in. (It's possible you also read about the destination in a magazine.) But while all this advance work can take some of the uncertainty out of travel, it can also remove some of the thrill. So we decided to send our writer, Jason Cohen, and his wife, Susan Shepard, somewhere they knew nothing about. And we weren't even telling them where until the day they were leaving. At least that was the plan...

Soon after Budget Travel booked our flights, Susan saw them listed on our Continental OnePass profiles. "We're going to Ecuador!" she announced, before realizing that she shouldn't have. (I told her she was a bit like Eve eating from the tree of knowledge.)

Ultimately, BT's editors decided that we should go as planned, as long as we agreed to do not one iota of research. Luckily, my knowledge of Ecuador began and ended with its latitude, while Susan only knew that the capital was Quito from a song she'd learned in a college Spanish class--and that our flight was to the southern city of Guayaquil.

We kept our promise not to read, talk, or think about the place until the morning we left, a plan that faltered only when the country popped up unexpectedly: the label of a fancy chocolate bar, a Vanity Fair article on a lawsuit against Chevron, a map of the Galápagos Islands on The Colbert Report.

Thanks to a missed connection in Houston caused by nasty weather (and the fact that there's just one flight a day from Houston to Guayaquil), it's 48 hours before we set foot in Ecuador. Our heads are filled not so much with possibility as with paralyzing indecision: Ecuador is the size of Nevada, and there are hundreds of places to choose from.

Having lost a day to travel and a morning to sleep, we're eager to get started--we crack open one of the guidebooks that Budget Travel sent us the morning of our flight. As great lovers of hot springs, we decide on a town called Baños. But in a mountainous, undeveloped country of lawless, laneless, sometimes-unpaved roads, what looks to be a three-hour journey on the map is actually a six-hour slog. Quito, which offers more appealing options as a gateway--and, at 9,300 feet, cooler weather than steamy Guayaquil--is also at least six hours by bus.

But Quito is only 45 minutes away via plane, and a one-way ticket is only $60. Before returning to the airport, we catch a cab to downtown Guayaquil's Parque Seminario, more or less your basic Latin American square (church, gazebo, statue of Simón Bolívar), with a reptilian twist: dozens upon dozens of iguanas, climbing up and down the trees, squirming in the grasp of little kids, and pooping all around the park.

We can't go to the Galápagos--too expensive, and they're a weeklong trip by themselves--but we can check in to Quito's Hostal Charles Darwin, a B&B-style place with a garden, a living room, and, sure enough, a bust and a framed sketch of evolution's father. The hotel is owned by a sister and two brothers, one of whom, Ramón, explains that the name is more about marketing than a passion for biology.

The hotel's hand-drawn map directs us to an Ecuadoran restaurant within safe and easy walking distance. We're expecting a casual place, but Rincón La Ronda is more like Quito's Tavern on the Green. On the first floor, there's a massive business-formal party; upstairs, a roaming band of poncho-clad musicians with drums, guitars, and Andean pipes entertain what looks to be a U.S. tour group. I flip for something I'll eat almost every day from here on out: humitas, fresh-ground corn and cheese steamed in husks; they fall somewhere between pudding and a moist muffin. My curry-like seco de chivo (goat stew) is also delicious, while dessert is a riddle: a stewed fruit that tastes faintly of apricot. It's tomate de árbol, the waiter tells us--"tree tomato," or tamarillo. We don't like the fruit nearly as much as we like the fact that we've never heard of it.

In the morning, we set off for Baños. Ramón checks our suitcases--we'll be backpackers for a day and a half--and lets the bill wait until our return. We go the first two hours by cab to Saquisilí, a one-church town that metamorphoses into a bustling mercado every Thursday. For the Kichwa people who come from all over the Andes, Saquisilí is a thrift shop, farmers market, Chinatown bootleg table, and Costco all in one. Spread out over several plazas are bulk spices, grains, toilet paper, DVDs, truck tires, sneakers, vegetables, kitchen utensils, and live chickens.

It doesn't take much to set off the vendors' gringo radar. We've been in town for all of 20 seconds when a tiny woman in a black fedora (part of contemporary indigenous dress) dashes across the street to intercept us. She's got a baby swaddled over her left shoulder and an armful of scarves in bright colors. Susan agrees to buy two scarves if it's OK to take some photos.

Inside the market, we both try on the alpaca sweaters sold by Rosa and Alfonso, a couple from the weavers' town of Otavalo. With the sweaters priced at only $28 each, we're not looking to haggle, but we are a little cash poor, at least until the next norteamericano-friendly ATM. But the minute Susan says we'll take one, Rosa writes a figure on her palm, and, well¿my grandmother would never forgive us if we passed up two for $40.

We take a bus to Latacunga (30 minutes) and another bus to Ambato (60 minutes), then one more bus to Baños (60 minutes), where we stumble right into Café Good. A lovely 18-year-old named Gabriela Pulgar and her equally guapo father, Jaime, take good care of us, though sadly, they have run out of humitas. On the way to the restroom, I realize that the doorway they keep disappearing through leads down a hall and up some stairs into their home. The restaurant is literally a family making meals in its kitchen. (The location closed soon after we were there, but a second branch is still open.)

Baños is as Santa Fe might have been 50 years ago: definitely touristy, yet not exactly inauthentic. No doubt the nearby volcano Tungurahua--there was a big eruption as recently as August of 2006--keeps a lid on growth. Walking past the many expedition operators, I realize that I could spend a week here doing outdoor and adventure stuff like kayaking, canyoneering, mountain biking, and hiking in the jungle. We check in to the Hostal La Posada del Arte, owned by Jim Redd and Marshia Jackson, a pair of expat cyclists from Chicago with a dog named Simón, after Señor Bolívar. The clerk, Rosana, doesn't need to speak a word of English to direct us toward the main hot springs. She simply takes me down the street and points to the waterfall we can see from our room.

The town's name is officially Baños de Agua Santa ("baths of holy water"); the hot springs are officially Las Piscinas de la Virgen, named for the church's statue of the Virgin Mary. The baños are a communal place with three big pools, one of which is a scorching 118 degrees. The regular pool is way more relaxing, as is the glass of Chilean cabernet I'm served back at the hotel with our organic repast: fried locally caught trout and a paella made with quinoa--as common in Ecuador as white rice is in the U.S.--and sweet potatoes.

We wake to heavy rain, and we learn over breakfast that rain and traces of pyroclastic flow caused a mudslide, closing the one road into and out of town until the afternoon. This is not exactly devastating news. We just might have to go a whole day without getting on a plane or bus. When you don't have plans, you often feel a weird momentum, pushing you to move on to the next place or to make a new discovery. It's a relief to just stand still.

I'd planned to work for my massage--the Luna Runtun spa is an hour-long hike halfway up the mountain--but now we have to take a cab. Luna Runtun is an upscale resort with 30 rooms, the spa, two restaurants, and a garden growing avocados, corn, and tomates de árbol. For $90 each, Susan and I get a massage and another treatment (facial for Susan, volcanic body scrub for me), lunch, and access to the pools (hot, cold, and Jacuzzi), which we have to ourselves.

The day of relaxation also means more time for conversation: In Baños, we meet a birding guide who recommends a cloud forest west of Quito, while Marshia tips us off about a café in Quito that arranges visits to a plantation. If we had planned on staying in Baños for a second day, we might have brought our luggage; then we could have side-tripped to the jungle or spent a few days descending from the mountains back to Guayaquil.

As the express bus to Quito passes through each town, vendors hop on hawking everything from fried bananas to books of dirty jokes (after a few miles, they catch the next bus going back the way they came). We don't even have to stop and see Salcedo, a town known for its ice cream: Salcedo comes to us. "Helado!" the woman with the little cooler yells as she comes down the aisle. Susan opts for a coconut one. It costs 50¢, and it's exquisite because of the quality ingredients: real sugar, (presumably raw) milk, and fresh coconut.

In Quito, we stay checked in at the Darwin, but during a not-sure-where-we're-going stroll in the touristy La Mariscal district, we can't resist visiting a gringo oasis, the business center at the JW Marriott. Besides, we have just two days left in Ecuador, so speaking English with a tourism professional seems like a good way to maximize our time. We get directions, book our return tickets to Guayaquil, and arrange for an English-speaking cabdriver to take us to the equator on Sunday morning.

La Mitad del Mundo ("the middle of the earth") is a giant monument, museum, and shopping/dining complex where the locals gather every weekend. But 10 years ago, a GPS investigation found that it was about 250 meters off. The real equator is at the Museo de Sitio Inti-ñan (Inti-ñan is Kichwa for "Pathway of the Sun"), which offers a glimpse into indigenous life--blow darts, shrunken heads, an actual native house--as well as scientific trickery at latitude 0 degrees. The museum's guide, Patricia, drains a sink at the equator: The water shoots down into a bucket underneath like a rock dropped from a building. Then we move just eight feet south and north, where the stuff swirls (respectively) clockwise and counter-clockwise. The Science page at snopes.com says it's a trick, but it still looks cool.

We'd hoped to venture out of town again--perhaps to that cloud forest, or to an eco­lodge between the mountains and the coast--but it's Sunday in a Catholic country, and our exploratory phone calls go unanswered. We do finally locate two things we'd expected (and failed) to encounter readily: coffee and chocolate. Este Café is the place that Marshia at Posada del Arte mentioned when we said we'd like to see where coffee comes from. Owner Nicolas Jaramillo is trying to teach Ecuadorans to value the country's own crop--most people drink instant, and the country's coffee is mostly grown for export.

Around the corner is Kallari, a café and shop run by a cooperative of Kichwa villages. The Kichwa farmers grow cacao on the banks of the Napo River in the rain forest. Some of it is sold to European chocolate companies, but in an effort to create a sustainable economy and beat fair-trade wages by cutting out the middleman, they now produce three varieties of chocolate bars. Judy Logback, an American environmental biologist who works with the Kichwa, tells us that for $25 a day, we could make the five-hour trip to the town of Tena, stay with a local family, and see the entire chocolate-making process--but not without at least a few days' notice. Nicolas had said the same about the coffee plantation.

So it was with the whole trip. The general excitement of "What should we do now?" was mitigated by a lot of "Wish we could do that." Not knowing where to go and what to do was both unnerving and exciting, in the same way that being forced to use my dreadful Spanish was: When it worked, the satisfaction was that much greater. But without the practical ability to travel anywhere at any time, especially after dark--something we take for granted in the States--more than half our trip was spent on navigation and logistics.

A little bit of planning would have set the stage for more adventure. We might have flown to Quito, picked one region of the country to explore, and traveled with trekker's backpacks instead of wheelie bags. Our trip was like radical free jazz, the stuff that sounds frenzied and chaotic to most people. In hindsight, I guess we prefer jazz that builds off a recognizable structure or melodic theme. It's more user-friendly, but no less full of creative possibilities--as long as you know how to improvise.

Lodging

Hostal Charles Darwin Quito, 011-593/2223-4323, ecuanex.net.ec/hostal_darwin, $37

Hostal La Posada del Arte Baños, 773/572-8810 (U.S.), posadadelarte.com, from $28

Four Points by Sheraton Guayaquil, 011-593/4269-1888, fourpoints.com, from $80

Food

Rincón La Ronda Bello Horizonte 400 y Almagro, Quito, 011-593/2254-0459, rinconlaronda.com, humita $2.50

Café Good 16 de Diciembre y Luis A. Martínez, Baños, 011-593/3274-0592, ham sandwich $2.50

Este Café Juan León Mera N23-94 y Wilson, Quito, 011-593/2254-2488, estecafe.com

Kallari E4-266 Wilson y Juan León Mera, Quito, 215/297-0240 (U.S.), 011-593/2223¿6009, kallari.com

Activities

Las Piscinas de la Virgen Av. Juan Montalvo, Baños, $2

Luna Runtun Caserío Runtun Km. 6, outside Baños, 011-593/3274-0882, lunaruntun.com, hour massage $36

Mitad del Mundo 10 miles north of Quito, $5

Museo de Sitio Inti-ñan admission (with bilingual tour) $3