December 18, 2019
A 62 Year Young Expat Shares Her Solo Bus Trip Adventure To Baños
A Guest Post by Janet Narum
A friend of mine in the U.S. recently told me I was gutsy for traveling around Ecuador as a 62 year young American woman via local buses after the recent transportation strike and protests. I’ve never thought of myself as gutsy at all. I understand that since Ecuador was in the news for protests that took place in October people who have never lived outside of North America are concerned about safety in Ecuador. I wanted to share my story and tell you that I found traveling in Ecuador is safe. Ecuador is welcoming to travelers.
Of course, it is still important to be aware of your surroundings wherever you travel in the world and to use discernment.
This was not my first trip trekking around Ecuador. In 2017 I hiked parts of the Quilotoa Loop with a friend, in 2018 canoed an Amazon tributary with my sons, and visited the beautiful Salinas coastal area in January 2019. I loved Ecuador so much I retired and moved here in June 2019.
I concede that the transportation strike and protests were unsettling. But I felt safe in my home and Cotacachi community. I knew some of the Indigenous protesters, including my kind and helpful neighbors. So, as soon as the 11-day protests were over, I started planning my week-long excursion around Ecuador. This solo bus trip was my best Ecuadorian trip ever.
Why? I think it’s because in January 1996, my twin 12-year-old sons and I were having a miserable vacation in Washington D.C. All government offices were shutdown, including the Smithsonian National Zoo. We watched TV for hours. Then one day we woke to good news: the shutdown was over and the zoo was open! We rushed over there and found the zoo employees were thrilled to see us. Even the animals looked surprised and curious. We felt like celebrities and counted that as the best zoo experience ever! It’s fun to travel where the locals are glad to see you.
Ecuador Is Welcoming To Travelers
The first night of my excursion, just 8 days after the strike ended, I stayed in the capital city Quito at the El Roble at Tomas De Berlanga for $28. The young man at the front desk suggested I go to a restaurant nearby. It was dark when I ventured out. I looked down at my half-zipped purse and remembered how many times my friends in the U.S. had told me to “Zip up your purse! You’re a walking target.” I zipped my purse even as I looked around at the tranquil faces –and wondered about my need do that.
The scariest thing I saw was the street I had to cross. Cars rushed by quickly. I decided to glom on to the first person who looked like they knew what they were doing. It was a young man who appeared to be going home after work. He started to cross the street and I felt like grabbing his arm but instead just walked closely behind him. When we got to a center island on the street, he turned to look at this person who walked so close to him.
I am just learning bits of Spanish and I wanted to say. “I’m trying to cross the street with you” in Spanish but all I could say was “ Yo cominar. Usted cominar.” He looked puzzled. I tried to say it several ways and tried to really roll those r’s and he just squinted at me. Finally he asked in perfect English. “Do you want me to help you cross the street?” (I later learned that to walk is caminar in Spanish not cominar). No wonder he was confused!
I was so relieved as those cars buzzed by me. I smiled and said “yes” and we crossed the rest of the street together. When I crossed the next street, I walked behind young children in uniforms who must have been going home from school fairly late in the evening. I wondered if this was one of the streets that had been in turmoil the week before. I guess I’ll never know.
A friend of the waiter walked up to me, saying “I speak English. What do you need?”
“I’m vegetarian.” He also seemed to be holding back a giggle as he talked to the waiter in Spanish. Then, I looked around the room. It was a cozy place with giant photos of meat everywhere. Oh! It was a grilled meat or barbecue joint. I glanced at the big hunks of meat on the platters being served.
No wonder the guys were laughing. Vegetarians probably don’t venture into El Chonero very often. I assured them that I’d gladly eat fries and a salad, and before long I was being served tasty food and everyone looked happy again.
Walking back to my hotel, I noticed lots of people walking arm-in-arm. People looked at me and smiled. Happy. That’s how I’d describe Quito that evening.
The Bus to Riobamba and Alausi
The next day, I made my way to the bus station to buy a ticket to Riobamba. I asked the ticket agent (in my broken Spanish) how to find the gate. She said a bunch of things I didn’t understand. Then, she told me to wait and started helping a young man behind me. After he bought his ticket, she asked him if I could follow him to the bus. I followed him, his young beautiful wife, and child. The wife kept turning around to be sure that I hadn’t gotten lost in the crowd.
I took the bus to Riobamba and from there, another to Alausi. On the Alausi-bound bus, a young boy peered at me from behind my seat. I looked back at him and said “Hola”. He replied, “Hello. What is your name?”
Ohhh, I thought. He wants to practice English. “My name is Janet. What is your name?”
“My name is Jorge,” he said with pride. I could SO relate to his efforts. I’m delighted when I say a new Spanish word and people actually understand me.
When we arrived at Alausi, several people on the bus told me this was my stop. I think I get that kind of help because I always look confused. (My college professors would stop their lectures to ask me if I had gotten lost somewhere. I always had).
As I wandered away from the bus in Alausi, I wondered why I had packed such a heavy backpack. Why those extra pair of shoes? Why the laptop?
Suddenly, there was a man by me saying “Hotel?” I knew that I’d get my backpack off so I said “yes”. Within minutes, I was in the Hotel Gampala which was clean with fluffy towels and a great view of the community for $20 a night.
“It Seems All Peaceful and Happy Again”
Then my 35 year-old son Kevin called. “I see on Facebook that you’re on a solo bus trip around Ecuador. But wasn’t Ecuador just having protests a week ago?”
“Yes, but it seems all peaceful and happy again.”
“Wait a minute. If I was living in a foreign country and took off on a bus trip after protests in the streets, you’d give me lectures and get really mad.”
“I see how it is,” he responded, as we turned to other topics.
The next day, I took the Devil’s Nose Train (Nariz del Diablo Tren). This train was wonderful because we could walk around, open windows, and take pictures. I loved this train. We stopped at a tiny village where I had a nice breakfast right next to the train tracks and some local women danced for us.
After two pleasant dinners and evenings in Alausi, I walked to the bus station the next morning. There I said “Baños?” to random people. Many people seemed concerned. Soon, they started saying “Ambato” to me with great emphasis so I knew that must mean that I needed to change buses in Ambato. I walked over to the ticket office, pulled a bunch of change out of my jeans pocket, and said “Ambato” to the clerk.
Going to Baños
“Senora” said the man behind me. He handed me a crumpled $5 bill that had fallen from my pocket. I said “gracias” over and over and then “muchas gracias” –he seemed embarrassed, so I stopped. I got my $4 ticket to Ambato, got on the bus, and paid $1 for a bottle of coconut milk. I think those bottles of sweet coconut are the yummiest drinks to enjoy on the bus. They’re so good that I might take future bus trips just for the pure joy of sitting back and savoring every last guzzle.
I changed buses as I’d been instructed, then arrived at Baños, the vacation land of outdoor activity. I had read about the Casa Giralda on TripAdvisor so I asked a taxi to take me there. He said “Mucho tranquillo at Casa Giralda.” I notice that tranquillo is a popular word in Ecuador.
Casa Giralda is a lovely hotel with a charming restaurant and two swimming pools. The front lobby had a rustic yet elegant charm. I asked the clerk how much and she said “$25 a night.” That’s when I knew I needed to write this article. I kept thinking “Why isn’t everybody vacationing here? This is the best-kept secret around.”
As I’m sitting here writing this back at my home in Cotacachi, my neighbor Heidi just brought her dogs over for a tumbling-happy play date with my dogs. My other neighbor Bev stopped by to welcome me home from my bus adventure. After that, my indigenous neighbors Angelito, Rosita, Franklin, Priscilla, and Mikel dropped by. Angelito showed me a video of his new puppy playing with their chicken, as he explained the importance of puppies seeing chickens as friends before they grow up. Yes, he did this in Spanish and I understood!
He also talked about his construction business and upcoming jobs he’s happy about. His wife Rosita brought me a delicious bowl of food she prepared from vegetables straight from their garden. Rosita’s seasonings are always perfect.
They didn’t stay long saying that I should rest after my trip. As they were leaving, they invited me to the Dia De Los Difuntos celebration in the local cemetery. This is an important holiday which honors family including those who have died.
I feel honored. I have only lived here four months and it’s already beginning to feel like home. Ecuador will feel even more like home when my sons visit in December. We’ll travel by local buses to see Baños, the Condor Park in Otavalo, and the beautiful beaches. And I can’t wait to introduce them to bottles of refreshing coconut milk.
And, yes, my son Kevin no longer worries about our safety in this beautiful country.
By Janet Narum