Baños, Ecuador

Although we spent much of our time in Ecuador in Quito, we wanted to try and see something else. Fortunately, the town of Baños is about 4 hours away by bus, so we decided to leave at the crack of dawn one day and make the most of it.

Casa del Arbol: A trip to Baños isn’t complete without a trip to the big treehouse swing that goes out over the side of a mountain, resulting in some pretty awesome pictures. To get there, we had to catch a local bus from town (ask around about the buses that pass by Casa del Arbol) and endure the one hourish bumpy ride up the mountain. At the top, there are actually two giant swings (columpios gigantes). The one to the right is the best. We got off the bus quickly and jetted our way to the entrance, which I’m glad we did because the line gets pretty long for the swing! There is a man that will push you on one of the best swings and you go back and forth maybe 15-20 times, so have a friend ready with the phone camera and take as many pictures as you can because it’s hard to get one just right! I have to admit, I was pretty terrified since it’s just a rickety wooden swing with a little strap hooked in front of you. I may have screamed a bit, but I wasn’t the only one. 🙂 There’s also several other swings where you can push each other, though it’s hard to get going as high as the man who works there! There’s even a short zipline over the ground and a long snakelike balance beam you can walk, which also gives pretty badass photos. Afterward, while waiting for the bus, go down to the restaurant and get a hot cup of canelazo! This is like hot apple cider, but they add a special liquor to it which gives it a nice kick and this particular place used some liquor that changed the color of the liquid. Pretty neat.

Pailón del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron): This waterfall is super powerful and was well worth it! You can bike maybe an hour outside of town to get there, but we were short on time so we hopped on a public bus which took about 15 minutes and was cheap. You can get dropped off above or below the waterfall. Apparently if you walk from above, it’s a bit easier, but you don’t get as close to the waterfall. We decided to enter from below, which had a nice easy hike and then you came out near the middle of the waterfall. If you’re willing to get wet, you can crawl through some tiny spaces in the rock wall and then run up some stairs cut out right next to the waterfall. We did this and got completely soaked, but it was fun.

Thermal Baths: Baños is named for all the natural thermal baths they have. There are several, but we visited the ones in town situated right next to the mountain called Termos de La Virgen. We went in the evening before returning on the bus and it was nice because the sun wasn’t blaring down on us. Lots of locals go at night too, so you can see a bit of real life and make friends. After paying the entrance fee, there are baskets to put your stuff in and leave with a drop off counter. Then there are several different baths to choose from. The most popular is a warm bath upstairs, but there’s also a chilly one up there too (these might be better if you go in the daytime). Downstairs, there’s a scalding hot one which I read is about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, next to a freezing cold one that is almost as cold as ice. This is where the hardcore locals hang out as they’ve learned to handle these temps. I sat there on the edge of the hot one for awhile, dipping my toes in, then my foot, and suddenly pulling it out as I exclaimed in pain and my skin broke out in goosebumps from the heat. Some locals sitting near me kept telling me just to get all the way in and not to move as much because it hurts worse. Honestly my skin is tingling just remembering how hot it was! But eventually I made my way all the way in up to my shoulders and lasted about 30 seconds (maybe?). Then I tried doing the ice cold one…same problem, but eventually succeeded! I know there’s a lot of research that says this sort of thing is good for your muscles and joints, but I’m not sure how often I could handle it. Anyways, great place to visit…can’t miss it!


Mercado: Definitely stop by the market and grab a big, cheap lunch for a few dollars. We enjoyed a delicious meal sitting at a plastic table in the middle of the market with an Ecuadorian family whose little girl couldn’t stop staring at us as we spoke in English. 🙂

Aromi Cafe & Chocolate: This little cafe is perfect for a delicious breakfast or hot chocolate. Apparently you also can choose one of their different chocolate bars and they’ll make it into a hot chocolate for you!

Baños was a great little day trip, though if I were to do it again, I’d want to stay for a couple days as there’s much more to see and do there!


Quito, Ecuador

I had heard many things about Quito before visiting. Some people said it wasn’t worth my while, whereas others described it like a sunnier, smaller, and safer Bogota. I have to say that after spending a little over a week there, I’ll go with the latter opinion. I really enjoyed Quito! I did feel pretty safe there, found it easy to get around with the local transport and Ubers (although I did get into a spat with some regular taxi drivers), and really affordable even being in dollars.

We arrived in Quito on New Years Eve, so pretty much everything was shut down except for all the street vendors selling these particularly creepy dolls, street food vendors, and random clothing. We also saw many men cross dressing complete with a wig and heels. We found out later that it is a New Years Eve tradition to burn El Año Viejo, the old year, at midnight by burning the “esposos” (male spouses) at midnight and the men are dressing up as the esposas (wives). That explained the dolls and our hostel also burned one, which was great fun and kept us warm until the fumes and smoke kicked us out of the area.

Some things we did around Quito…

Explore Old Town, including Calle La Ronda: Old Town is filled with cobblestones (though some was becoming paved while we were there) and beautiful buildings. If you get one of the city maps, they have routes marked that take you past specific interests like the many churches. Calle La Ronda is a pedestrian-only street with plenty of shops and restaurants to check out. I went both during the day and at night and different things were open each time.



Take the teleférico up to Volcán Pichincha: For only $8.50 leaving from Vulqano Park, a strange little amusement park on the side of the mountain, you can see all of Quito spread out before you, and it’s an amazing sight! However, go up early and only if it’s a clear day, otherwise you won’t be able to see anything. We got very lucky on the day we went, but as we descended the teléferico to return to Quito, we were surrounded by clouds and could not see a damn thing.


The neighborhoods of La Floresta and Guapulo: We did an awesome free walking tour in the evening through Guapulo, which is a nice neighborhood on one edge of Quito that used to be an entirely separate town. You look at the graffiti along the way, learn the history, and stop in the church. Then you take a quick bus up to a park in La Floresta with plenty of food stalls and walk around this neighborhood a bit, which is known as the artsy hipster neighborhood. You finish at the cafe/independent theatre Medio Ocho. We loved this tour and I’d recommend it to anyone! You contribute at the end whatever you’d like to your guide.


Parque Itchimbia: We visited this park on New Year’s Day because everything else was closed and it was pretty rainy and cold, but it’s still a great place to walk around. You’re up above the city a bit, they have giant Quito letters to pose with, and apparently there’s a cute cafe near the entrance called Cafe Mosaico which has a great view, but it was closed on the day we went.


Go up to El Panecillo: Overlooking the city is a statue of the Virgin. We didn’t do this because the view from Pichincha was even more incredible, but this is another good option to get a viewpoint from above. We were told this is not a safe area though, so take a taxi up as far as you can.

Artisan market near Plaza Foch (in La Mariscal): La Mariscal is the zone where people go out and there are also plenty of restaurants and hostels. (We almost stayed in this area, but instead picked Hostel Masaya in Old Town, which we absolutely loved. Unless you want to stay in a place with lots of other backpackers, I’d recommend Old Town for a more authentic feel.) This area is good for browsing and there’s an artisan market with tons of stalls where you can bargain prices against each other since you’ll see similar items in each or spend an hour looking at 250 blankets in each stall before deciding on one like I did. 🙂 But now I have a gorgeous, big wool blanket for only $16! If you get cold, warm up with a delicious hot chocolate at República del Cacao (and try every single one of their chocolates….that’s what tasters are for, right??).



Mitad del Mundo: This is not actually in Quito, but is a must-do even though it’s supposedly not the actual middle of the Earth! Apparently the line changes and where the monument and attraction is located known as “Mitad del Mundo” is not entirely correct. There’s another location nearby that has a small museum you can visit, but we didn’t have a chance to go. One fun experiment that you can do at Mitad del Mundo is balance a raw egg on a nail. It took a bit of trying, but we finally did it! However, I’d still like to try it at my house because I’m not sure I believe or fully  understand all the physics about it… Anyways, we met up with another fellow teacher from Panamericano in Quito (her native city) and she drove us out to Mitad del Mundo. Then she knew the girl at the ticket window, so we got a discount on the entrance which was pretty awesome. This was definitely a tourist spot, which was kinda annoying to try and get pictures without a million people in them, but still a fun place to go to feel like you’ve done handstands on the “middle of the Earth”.


Go dancing on Thursdays for salsa/bachata night at Salsoteca Lavoe: I was craving dance and went to two classes at a studio one day. Then I read up about Salsoteca Lavoe, hopped on the trolley bus by myself late one Thursday night, and went out. Thursdays are all salsa and bachata music and everyone there is really good! I had the time of my life dancing with some amazing partners and learning a lot. Pretty much the entire place is all dance floor as people do not go unless they’re wanting to dance all night. I barely could guzzle a couple waters and beer because you’re constantly on your feet. And something I loved there was that they assign you a swipe card when you walk in, so when you buy things, they just swipe your card. When you’re ready to leave, they scan it at the register by the door and you pay your bill all at once…so convenient!

Eat empanadas de viento and drink morocho and canelazo: I know there are tons of things to eat in Quito that people will recommend. The intestines were really popular at the little food stands in La Floresta, but I chose not to try them. Instead I ate an empanada de viento, a giant fried dough with a little bit of cheese inside. They sprinkle sugar on them and it reminded me of an elephant ear. Morocho is a warm corn-based drink with milk, cinnamon, and sugar. You can also add raisins to it. Canelazo is like spiked apple cider and so delicious! It warms you right up from the inside out.


These were some of the highlights of Quito. One thing I should note is the transportation. Public transport is pretty good, even if old and slow at times. I took the trolley buses all over the city and had no problems whatsoever besides being packed in with people at times…and the best part is that it only cost 25 cents! Although it definitely took longer, it gives you more of a feel for local life in Quito. This was better for me because I got rather frustrated and angry with many taxi drivers who tried to take advantage of us being gringos. I may have yelled at one driver and told him not to take advantage of people who are bringing money and tourism to his country….and then yelled at another for trying to go out of his way on purpose to charge us more for the ride…he stopped the car and almost made us get out on the street at midnight, so I shut up. But seriously! One driver tried to charge us $10 for a trip from Old Town to the bus station when we had already been told it should be around $5, so the meter started late. When we reached our destination, he didn’t have change for us so he tried to round up the price…I said no and he tried to use the excuse that he started the meter late, which I explained was his own fault for wasting time trying to get us to pay an absurd price. Another driver asked us after getting in how much we’d be paying for our trip that night. I answered that we’d be using the meter and he said they don’t use the meters at night. Uhhhh HELLO, do you think I was born yesterday? Ugh. Anyways, all of this to say that you need to be careful with the taxi drivers and if you can handle public transport, it’s useful for saving money and a headache of fighting with drivers!

We only took one full day trip from Quito up to Baños, so I’ll write about that in the next post!




Playa Farallón and Valle del Antón, Panama

While my friend had her parents visiting Panama City for a few days, I took off on my own to Playa Farallón down the Pacific Coast and then up to the mountain town of Valle del Antón. I know, I know, I had just been on islands in the middle of the ocean for several days, but I definitely was not beached out yet!

Playa Farallón is a long, clean beach with parts that actually appear to be black sand though it does not go down too far. It’s well-known with the high-end tourists because there is a Decameron resort along the beach, but being the budget traveler I am, I found a cheap little hostel called Taca Tucan Hostel for $15 a night including breakfast in a shared 4-bed dorm which I ended up having to myself both nights. The owner, Trixie, is an Austrian who visited Farallón, liked the community, bought the hostel from another expat family that owned the bar/restaurant down the street, and stayed. Next door, there’s a little coffee shop/homemade pizza place with a unique vibe and great place to meet people, as I did my very first evening there hanging out and having a beer by myself.


To get there sounded complicated, but was surprisingly easy. From the main Albrook bus terminal in Panama City, you ask around and find the ticket window to buy a ticket passing Farallón near Playa Blanca and get on a little mini-van. They drive along the highway and drop you at a cross street near Farallón. You hop out, cross the highway, and wait for another little mini-van to pass, waving your arm for them to stop. Hop in with a bunch of the locals heading to work at the Decameron and ask them to drop you by the iglesia for around 35 cents. This is practically right in front of the hostel as there’s only one road running parallel to the beach. I have to admit though, it would be a lot more complicated if I didn’t have the Spanish.

I spent the next couple days lounging on the beach, hanging out with some people I met, including a Panamanian with a Swedish guy that’s been living in Tokyo for the past 10 years, and then an Argentinian guy that had spent some time in Colombia and now was working at the restaurant for a few months on the beach. He showed me a massive tree where the roots are out of the ground and it’s like a giant climbing playground and then a beautiful place to watch the sunset as you look out over the expanse of beach. Honestly, I could have easily spent a relaxing week in this area, which cannot even be called a town as it’s little more than a few shops and restaurants along a small strip.


However, I had already made plans to catch three more mini-vans up to Valle del Antón, which I had read about being a cute little mountain village. I stayed at Bodhi hostel which also cost $15 and had a great vibe, but I will admit, the giant dorm with like 32 beds stacked three high was a bit annoying at night for light sleepers like me.

One of the more popular things to do in Valle del Antón is to visit the thermal baths where you can slather your face with the volcanic mud, which supposedly has lots of great minerals for your skin, and then hang out in the water. I got a bit lost walking there, but it’s only about 15 minutes from town so it should be easy to get to. You pay a $3 entrance for upkeep and then choose which volcanic mud you want…one for more sensitive skin or the other one. As you sit around and wait for it to dry, there are small pools for you to soak your feet and chat it up with both the locals and travelers hanging out. A word of caution: don’t wear a light colored bathing suit! After I got out, I realized my suit had turned orange in some parts from the minerals in the water. I had to soak it in vinegar about five times when I returned to get it all out.

A great way to get around Valle del Antón is on bicycles. The next morning, I rented an old school bicycle from the hostel for a few dollars and rode around on it. There are some hikes you can do and some waterfalls you can visit not too far out of town, but I wasn’t in a hiking mood. I did try to find one waterfall through a back way I read about on another blog, may have hopped a few fences, and got myself lost before I gave up. But from what I read and heard from others, they’re worth it to find if you’re there for a few days. I basically explored on bike and then went to the local market in town, where you can buy artisan crafts, typical souvenirs, plants, and produce. One guy was carving little metal plates that he attached to bracelets and necklaces right in front of me. I stopped to talk and he ended up making me a custom tree bracelet on a little bronze plate for just a few dollars.


Getting back to Panama City was easy peasy with all the mini-van hopping, but then there was a major traffic jam that we sat in for over an hour and a half. Luckily, I had books on my phone to keep me company and we weren’t moving, so no motion sickness, yay! Bright and early the next morning, New Years Eve, we were on our way to Quito…


San Blas Islands

Oh, San Blas…Imagine a little boat with bench seats of people covering themselves with garbage sacks as it flies over the open ocean rising up with every wave and crashing down so hard that your back cracks, water sprays, and you swear you’re about to die…for about an hour, I laughed in near hysteria as we traveled to Isla de Diablo…or Devil’s Island, our destination for the next few days. This is after waking up at 4am to be picked up by a fully camouflage 4×4 vehicle and winding through the jungle for a few hours to reach our “port” on the Caribbean side of Panama. When I could open my eyes every couple minutes after wiping the saltwater and perhaps terrified tears from them, I looked out over the ocean and saw little bits of land and palm trees popping up everywhere. The archipelago of San Blas, also known as Guna Yala, is made up of more than 365 islands, only 49 of which are inhabited. Some are so tiny that they have only a few palm trees, while others have entire villages.  It is picture perfect paradise.

My friend and I originally had wanted to do the multi-day boat trip from Cartagena to Panama passing through San Blas, but the dates didn’t work out. Instead we found a tour through a company called San Blas Dreams that visited the Cayos Holandeses amongst other islands that lasted for 3 days and would ensure we were on an island for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The payment was a bit complicated, as there’s a deposit to the company, then a part you pay to the driver that picks you up, then some to the boat drivers at the port, and then the rest to the Guna Yala family that hosts your primary stay island (ours being Diablo). As things typically go when you travel, not all worked out as planned. Upon arrival to the island, we found out they could not take us to Cayos Holandeses the following day because it was too far away and the weather had been so windy the past few weeks that it was too dangerous to go there in our boats. This led to a lot of debate since part of our payment was specific to visiting those keys. Luckily we negotiated that they’d take us to different island instead.

Lodging on the islands is primitive, and you have to be willing to rough it for a few days! I was pleasantly surprised to find working toilets and even 2 showers in the shared bathroom building. Of course it was just a pipe that shot out cold water, but it was great when I finally decided to rid myself of all the salt water and sunscreen accumulating on my body (yes, I may have only showered once while there…don’t judge. The ocean is a natural bath!). The sleeping accommodations were literally shanties with a tin roof and slats of wood slapped together with a mattress on top of a wooden frame inside and a single lightbulb that was connected to a solar energy panel. The floor was the sand itself, so sleeping those few nights was not the most comfortable, but taking naps on the beach in the sun more than made up for it!

The first afternoon, they took us and some people who were just day tripping to the islands (which seemed to me really far to travel if only coming for an afternoon!) to the island of Chichime (pronounced CHEE-chee-may). This turned out to be my favorite island of all and the one we requested they take us back to the following day. The most pristine water and sand that you can imagine, with all the shades of blue as you looked out to sea. If you have a chance to go, I highly recommend making this island your primary stay! Later, we stopped at a “piscina natural”, which was literally a sand bar and island in the making in the middle of the sea. Again with water so clear you can look down and see all your toe nail polish!

The following day, we lounged on Chichime again where there was hardly anyone to be seen besides the boats docked nearby that must have been passing the Christmas holidays on a yacht through the archipelago (#goals). That night was Christmas Eve and we were served lobster! Now, I probably didn’t clarify this enough, but basically each island is owned by an indigenous Guna Yala family (though our island was bigger, so there were two families). This family is in charge of the lodging, food, and so on and it is their entire livelihood. There were only a few other people overlapping with our days there, so it was pretty private. Earlier that day, the father of the family had asked us if we liked “langosta”. I couldn’t remember the word in that moment, so I just answered “yes” assuming I’d eat whatever it was. Afterward, my friend and I debated and tried to remember…I knew “langostino” are the big shrimp, like crawfish, and I thought langosta was lobster, but I thought surely they won’t be serving us lobster when we’re only paying them less than $200 for all the trips, food, and lodging. Sure enough, later that day a friend pulled up on another boat and made “deliveries” which included some freshly caught lobster. There were several throughout that day and Christmas day as friends from other islands connected with the families on our island for the holidays. Lots of cases of beer, food, and so on as it all has to be delivered by boat. (I even rescued one boat from being taken out to sea as I saw the waves pulling it off the sand and I jumped off my towel and ran off to grab the rope and try to pull it back before its owner saw and ran to help me.)

Christmas Eve dinner included SO much food, as we got our full dinner and then they bring us another plate with the strangest mixture of food I’ve ever seen in my life…fried rice, candies, egg salad, cake, and grapes. Apparently some of them are common Christmas foods and the cake was because it was the owner’s daughter’s birthday that night! We all sang happy birthday to her and then sat playing cards with some of the local kids for a few hours. One gal named Kay came over from the other family’s hut and made friends with us. She taught us some card tricks and shared her independent travel stories that she’s been doing since the 60s. She was quite the inspiration to us to keep doing what we’re doing and living this incredible life we’ve been fortunate enough to have.

On our last day (Christmas day), we visited the island across from us called Perro Chico (Little Dog). This was quite a hopping little island with lots of visitors, especially because there was a “barco hundido” (sunken ship) right off the island that you could swim to and snorkel around. There were tons of fish, anemones, and coral growing in and around the ship. Our return trip that day was less bumpy than the trip out to the islands and besides getting major motion sickness on the 4×4 ride back to Panama City, we arrived safe and sound and ready for a real shower!

This was one of the top island trips I’ve ever had and highly recommended to anyone willing to get off the beaten track. I’m still hoping to do the Cartagena to Panama trip at some point in the future!


Ciudad de Panama / Panama City

In order to catch up on all my travels and have my own online journal, I decided to go in backwards chronological order, so I’m starting with my recent trip to Panama and Ecuador over the Christmas holidays 2017…

Upon arrival to Panama City, I was immediately taken aback by the following:

  1. How very Americanized the city was
  2. The interesting architecture
  3. The HEAT

I’ve been in Colombia so long now that sometimes I forget what the US feels like. Being in Panama City brought it all rushing back as I saw US chains like Baskin Robbins and

browsed through the massive, 24-hour grocery store (something that does not exist in Bucaramanga). My friend and I may have just walked up and down all the aisles gaping at the wide variety of brands and types of food. It was almost overwhelming, as I’ve had to get creative and cook a lot more from scratch in Colombia (not a bad thing, of course).




Way too excited for a big grocery store.

We were only in Panama for a few days before taking off to the San Blas islands, which I’ll discuss in the next post, so I didn’t do a whole lot in the city itself. For me, these were the main highlights.

The Panama Canal

I’m embarrassed to admit this to whole Internet world, but I never actually understood what the Panama canal was. I imagined it as literally just a cut through the land across Panama and boats flowed through it. This is why I never truly comprehended when people spoke of the great “engineering marvel”. Now, after visiting and seeing it for myself, I’m rather impressed.  The most popular locks to visit from Panama City are the Miraflores Locks. They’re about 20 minutes outside of the city and cost around $10 to get there if going by Uber. You can also take the public bus which only costs 25 cents, but you need the 3-in-1 bus/metro card to do so. However, I returned to the city this way and didn’t have a card yet, so I just asked someone if I could use their card and pay them. (Random act of kindness! They didn’t even accept my quarter.) Entrance for non-residents is $15, which felt like a lot since it was in dollars!

At the Miraflores Locks visitor center, there is a video you can watch in either English or Spanish that lasts about 30 minutes and several floors of a museum where you can learn about the history behind the canal, as well as ecological impact and how they continue to protect the habitats in the area. Depending on your museum habits, the museum could take an hour to go through. I tend to read almost everything and was in there awhile!

Of course most people want to actually see the ships go through the locks, but there are only certain times that you can see this. Generally, you need to get there early in the morning as ships will pass between 9 and 11am. Otherwise, be there late in the afternoon as ships passing from the other direction come through after 3pm. Unfortunately, I was there midday and didn’t actually see any ships! But there is a coffee shop on one of the terraces and you can sit and enjoy the sunlight.

Visit the Old Town (better known as Casco Viejo)

If you’re not staying in Casco Viejo, I recommend walking the path along the ocean called the Cinta Costera. In the evening, it’s a hopping place filled with bicyclists, families out walking, and more, but we were there in the middle of the day and heat of the sun, so we saw almost no one. There’s a fun Panama sign to pose with, some parks for kids, and plenty of benches to sit and take a break. Within the Casco Viejo, there are plenty of small streets to explore with souvenir shops, restaurants, ice cream shops, and boutiques. Of course there are tons of old buildings and monuments, but I’ll admit, I’m terrible with the history and names of things when I travel. I prefer to walk around and take in the ambiance, so you’ll have to research those elsewhere. 🙂 There are also many of those free walking tours where you just tip at the end, but we didn’t have time to do it. In one of the plazas, there was a small market set up with different souvenirs. Some of these are the same as you’ll find in the shops, but we found their prices were a bit better. And don’t forget, you can bargain a lot! In fact, they expect it, so even as a gringo, don’t be afraid to ask for lower prices or start to walk away until they offer you a better price.

Cerro Ancón

I did not actually go here, but my friend did with her parents and it’s a nice getaway from the city, while still being in the city. It’s basically a giant hill that overlooks Panama City that you can hike up and maybe see some wildlife. Go early in the morning before it’s too hot.

There is more to do in Panama City, but not a ton. I’ll admit, it’s a great stopover city for flying and the canal is interesting, but I don’t imagine myself spending a ton more time there unless it’s to transfer to another place. Such as San Blas, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been….working on that next!