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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Live and Learn – Ecuador 7.13.11

While thinking back on my travels, I’ve realized that there are a lot of lessons I’ve learned with each and every trip I’ve taken. Now, that’s great for me, but then I realized that it would be even more beneficial if I shared them with others, so that they can also learn from my mistakes. Of course, many of these will be included in my book*, but that doesn’t mean you can’t gain from hearing them more than once. In light of this, I’ve decided to start a new series called Live and Learn that you all can jump in on and contribute to. In short, it’ll be one destination and things I’ve learned from that trip that will stick with me on future journeys that you can learn from, too!

Ali Shungu Hotel in Otavalo
*Yup, Shereen Travels Cheap is going to be a budget travel book soon, chock full of amazing money-saving tips, product and website suggestions and packing information! I’m mostly done with additions and need to get through edits. I’ve got an ISBN and I just applied to register a trademark for my name, too. I am still on the lookout for great quotes I can use from readers. If you’re interested in getting a free copy of the book and seeing your name in print, send me a great positive quote from you on how Shereen Travels Cheap saved you money on your trips…or just to say how awesome it is!

Even though nothing went smoothly, we're still smiling
I think we learned enough things from our Ecuador trip to last a lifetime. It was just one learning experience after another with some bouts of sobbing in between. Oddly enough, it’s still one of the best trips we’ve ever had and we’ll have stories for years. If there was a word to describe it, boring would not be on the list! Frustrating, terrifying (at times), adventurous, frugal and enlightening would top the long list of things the trip was. Here’s what we learned and what mistakes we won’t make again when we travel to Ecuador.

Take a taxi everywhere – Normally this is on my list of no-nos, but in Ecuador, taxis are cheap like the bus is everywhere else. We took it 10 miles away and paid just $5 for the fare and tip. It cost us $1.50 to get from one end of Quito to the other. If you can walk there, do it, but if it’s night time or you have no clue where it is, just hail a cab. They’re everywhere. This can probably be said for many South American countries as well. Do you research before you leave (check sites like Lonely Planet for up-to-date info on transportation costs), so if you can save money and not rent a car, go with that option.

Getting the glass vacuumed out of the car after the new window was put in.
Don’t park your car on the curb after dark – This is probably a great tip for almost anywhere you travel, because thieves like to steal stuff out of cars. We rented a car and when we were in Quito we asked the hotel clerk if it was safe to park on the street. We didn’t specify that we meant overnight and she didn’t say “yes, but not after dark.” Unfortunately, our rental car was broken into on that first night and it took us all day to get it taken care of. Lucky for us, they only brok the window and stole my husband’s phone and some random junk left in the back seat. We were able to put a hold on the phone number and have the window fixed for around $30, but the filling out of the police reports and getting an interim rental car while everything else was being taken care of was a pain in the you know what. Spend the few bucks a night it costs to leave your car in an overnight, secured parking lot or garage. It’s cheaper than a new window and cell phone.

Rent a GPS – While I don’t recommend renting a car if you are staying within Quito, do get one if you want to be on your own schedule and do things in neighboring towns. You will almost never find a useful map for guidance, even within a town, and many streets aren’t even marked with signage anyway, so you can only guess as to what the name is in order to navigate poorly given directions from someone that may or may not get you partially to your desired destination. A GPS will at least tell you where to turn and how far to go.

Most highways are 2 lanes
Your blinker has two jobs – In America, and many other places I’ve driven or been driven, your blinker is a request to get in another lane or indicate a turn. In Ecuador it works very different. First of all, if you want in another lane where there are cars, you put on your blinker and just start to move over. Your blinkers tells people you’re coming and they will slow down enough to let you in. If you wait for an opening, you’ll never get in. The other job that your blinker does is let people know it’s safe to pass. This is pretty awesome and was easy to understand after a bit of highway driving where there was only one lane in each direction. If you saw that a car behind you was hoping to pass you, you would turn your left blinker on when there was an opening enough for them to pass you without getting hit by an oncoming car. It’s efficient and courteous and I would love for America to adopt this “law”.

Toll Booths
Carry small bills and lots of change – Ecuador is a country that is easy to travel inexpensively in. Small bills will be good for everything and if you are driving on highways, it will be necessary to carry a handful of random change to make it through toll roads. We hit a lot of them, but I still think we only spent a grand total of $3.00 the entire trip for toll charges. At least the roads are nicely paved! (U.S. Dollars are the official currency of Ecuador, so no need to even exchange your money.) This is a good idea in a lot of countries.

Credit cards are not widely accepted – Hotels, restaurants and car rental companies accept them, but there are many smaller shops that don’t, so don’t plan to rely too much on them. We made a purchase at a jewelry store and for a sale of hundreds of dollars, they required you to pay in cash. We had to make a quick run to the ATM before we could complete the transaction. Also, Discover Card is not accepted at all in Ecuador.

One of the many markets where you can haggle for goods
Know a little bit of Spanish – Just the basics are enough to get you by, like where is, how much, may I, excuse me, and so on. Numbers are a good thing to know, if you are into haggling. You will find English speakers when you least expect it and many more Spanish speakers where you thought catered to tourists. We purchased My Spanish Coach for the Nintendo DS and played for a month or so before we left. It helps you learn pronunciation, construct sentences and more. The higher the level, the more difficult the lesson, but it’s fun and really helped me to brush up on my language skills and my husband to learn at least the basics for communicating. I still did much of the translating, but we got by well enough. Of course please and thank you will get you quite far in any language.

Bring your own ketchup packets – This may sound weird, but if you like ketchup, you won’t find any in restaurants. The closest thing I ever got was tomato paste. Maybe ketchup is an American thing? I don’t know, but they served fries many places we went. Next time, I’ll load up on fast food ketchup packs or bring a small bottle of ketchup bought on Minimus.
One of the many phone banks in town
Know the telephone codes to call in-country – You can’t believe how important it is to know this until you realize you thought of everything else except how to call someone if you needed help or directions. We got lost trying to get to our eco-lodge and had to stop at a phone bank (a place with several phone booths that charge people to make calls) and ask them to dial for me…and pay them a dollar.

Common area of our eco-lodge in Mindo
Eco-lodge might be another word for electricity-impaired – While I’m not opposed to people saving the world by offering lodging with no electricity  and low-flow toilets, it IS a bit of a surprise when you don’t know when you’ve booked such a place before you get there. Again, this wouldn’t be a big deal either, unless you don’t like gigantic bugs and are planning to stay in such a lodging in the middle of the rainforest. If I were to stay at such a place again, I would bring a lantern flashlight, so I could see my way back from the main seating area to my cabin without almost killing myself. A candle is not all that helpful.

Bring extra batteries from home – While I brought a couple pair of my own batteries with me, it turned out not to be enough for the camera I had with me. We purchased at least 3 or 4 packages of batteries from “convenience” stores and they all worked for about 10 minutes and then were dead. No telling how long they’d been on the shelf, so make sure you bring fresh ones with you.

Free WiFi does not mean everywhere – When you stay in a hotel that claims to have free WiFi, make sure you find out if that includes service in your room, too. Our hotel, while awesome, only had Internet in the common areas...sometimes. After dragging your laptop up and down 3 flights of stairs at high altitude with no luck, you finally just leave it in your room and go to the lobby and use the public computer. Unfortunately, 90% of the time we were there, the same male guest was sitting in front of it doing things for hours, so we just decided that Internet access was not something that was that important during our trip. We also had spotty wireless in Otavalo, since the bungalows were widely spread out from the main house. We could get access, but only in a chair in the back corner of the room with the curtain open. LOL!
When all else fails, go to lunch
So, while we learned a lot and did a lot wrong, we still had a great time and was able to make the most of our trip. We put Ecuador on our list of places to return, so we can see things  we didn't get to on our last trip and hopefully travel a bit more efficiently next time we get there. The trip was made special by being together and the people we met along our journey. I mean, I joke that we can have fun at the DMV, but it's really true. We know how to take a bad situation and turn it into something positive, so ultimately our trip was successful and totally memorable.

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