Visiting Chocó: El Valle & Almejal (part 2)

If you didn’t read the first part of my October vacation to Prana Pacífico in the department of Chocó, go check it out here. This post goes into the second portion of my Pacific Coast trip (and is rather lengthy, I might add…I don’t want to forget anything!).

Day 4: Arrival via boat to the beach located in El Valle & beachtime!

After a couple hours on the boat, we were ready to relax in our new location, a small hostel called Pelican House, located right on the beach with the Chocoan jungle to its back. Immediately upon arrival, it was a great vibe with comfy beds in our 6 bed dormitory and lots of pets for us to play with! We got settled, found out about a lady living nearby that could prepare us a delicious lunch for 18 mil, and headed out to the beach. Naturally, I spent a lot of time tumbling and enjoying the wide expanse of beach because it was the lowest tide of the day. We took pictures, read books, and soaked in the sun that we had been missing for a couple days in our previous location.

After lunch, we walked the 25 minutes or so into the town of El Valle to buy some groceries since we’d have to cook most of the time at our new place. This area is not very touristy yet, so there are only a couple places to eat. Even in town, there are only tiendas, which are just small shops, so our food options were very limited. Fresh veggies weren’t due to arrive until the next day, so we bought what we could and headed back. Of course, along these walks, we met a group of kids playing and dancing in the street, so I joined them which they found HILARIOUS. One kid was absolutely losing it, obviously thinking the white girl trying to dance with them looked absurd. We also saw so many dogs and I met a young girl who decided to grab my hand and walk with me a bit as she told me about one of the dogs. As we exited the town, two young boys walked up to us with a tray of coconut-guava treats his mother had made. We bought a few and discovered someone had given my friend a false 2 mil bill. Or rather, the kid knew it right away and brought it back to us telling us over and over “es falso”. Fortunately, 2 mil pesos is the equivalent of like 70 cents, so it wasn’t a big loss.


Me dancing with kids in the street (not sure what move I was doing here…weird moment), but this kid in blue was laughing hysterically at me.

That evening, we tried to watch the sunset, but it was too cloudy so we hung out in the hostel common area and made popcorn instead of a full dinner since we were still full from our big lunch. Of course, then we were all actually hungry from the snack and made a pretty pathetic dinner of eggs on bread. I got creamed at Bananagrams several times by one of the other teachers and learned some new rules for Uno, based on Kazakhstan rules!

Day 5: More beach time and a long, wet turtle exploration

We made plans to go on a turtle exploration later that night to try and see some loggerhead turtles, so we decided to take advantage of another beautiful day at the beach. Again, I did lots of cartwheels and found the most perfect sand dollar! There were hardly any shells on this beach, so I felt pretty lucky. Until I went out into the waves with the guys and showed them….then a wave took me over and I crushed the dainty sand dollar in my hand. Oops. We had fun swimming in the huge waves and met a guy from Bogotá named Jorge. We drank some beers, went to lunch with him at a posada nearby, some people ate some fish eyeballs (not me), played games, and relaxed some more. I was really into my book club book Refugee by this point, so it was great to have time to read it.


That evening, after a dinner of pasta, chicken, and homemade sauce, we headed out on our turtle adventure around 7pm. Daniela, the owner of the hostel, is wonderful and knows the guys who run the Asociación Caguama, which is a local group dedicated to rescuing loggerhead turtle eggs, keeping them safe in a sanctuary or “vivero”, and then releasing them when they hatch. I found a cool video when I tried to search for info to share with you here that shows their sanctuary we saw later in the night and the whole area where we were looking for turtles that night.

Asociación Caguama video: 

So, back to our adventure, because that’s what it really turned into. Shortly after leaving our hostel and making the trek to and through the town of El Valle (with a quick stop at our favorite bakery to buy bread for the next morning and also some for our guides), it started POURING. Luckily, us girls came prepared with ponchos and rain jackets, but the boys didn’t have anything. Our guides were wonderful and stopped off at some house to get some jackets for them to borrow. I was hopeful the rain might stop shortly, but alas, it was not meant to be. We crossed all through the town, across a long rickety bridge, then another wooden bridge, and headed deep into the jungle. I wore my walking sandals that are made for this type of thing, but the mud and pouring water around my feet nearly pulled them off a few times. Some of the others had to walk barefoot through it.


A photo attempt shortly after it started pouring as we crossed a giant bridge through town

After awhile, we arrived at another long stretch of beach. I know it was long because we walked on it for hours in the pouring rain, but to be honest, with only our head lamps, zero light pollution, and clouds covering the moon, you couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of you. This was rather unfortunate since there were hundreds and hundreds of crabs along that beach. Lots of the reddish ones with pinchers and lots of small black ones that look like spiders. As you tried to walk around them, it was like they WANTED to run right at your feet. I can’t tell you how many times we were shrieking and trying to jump out of their way awkwardly, only to almost jump onto another one. We called it the “crab dance” and it was one of the things that kept us entertained as we wandered along this dark beach in the downpour looking for turtle tracks that we never seemed to find.

After a couple hours, it felt hopeless and that we weren’t going to get to see any that night. As our guides said, it’s something of nature and you can’t force it. They showed us their vivero where they keep the eggs they rescue in marked mounds with the date, location, number, etc of where they found the eggs (look at the video to see it). It was really amazing all that they do! They even are working with some biologists to do an experiment where some of the mounds are covered to raise the temperature a bit and see if it produces more males or females. Natural scientists out there, without all the formal training, but they know these sea turtles inside and out.

I think our guide felt bad for us and could see we were pretty miserable and soaked. So he led us to a random hut back in the jungle a ways, and we sat there, tried to avoid all the mosquitoes wanting to suck our blood, and played a word association game to occupy ourselves. Maybe 30-45 minutes later, the guide came back and told us he found a turtle! We took off again and luckily the rain had nearly stopped by this point. Once we got close, he told us to turn off our lights, showed us the tracks and further up the beach, there it was. It was so much bigger than I expected! The guides tagged and measured it, and let us take photos without flash. He answered a bunch of our questions and then watched as this mama turtle started heading back toward the water. The guides took a stick and were trying to poke holes where they thought the eggs might have been left. They explained that a pocket of air remains where the mama put the eggs, so wherever they poke a hole, the sand will collapse if the eggs are buried there. Unfortunately, the sand was too hard because the tide has been so low during this time of year and the poor mama turtle went through all the work of finding this spot to lay her eggs and couldn’t do so. They said she’ll have to go off and find another one.


Hard to tell the size here, but she was probably about a meter long

Glad I got to see at least one sea turtle, we started the long trek back to our hostel, thankful that it wasn’t raining anymore. I was so tired when we arrived back around midnight that I passed out without even showering; a cold shower sounded pretty miserable by that point!

Day 6: Lazy hammock morning and day in town

We all were pretty beat after our long, rainy adventure the night before, so we spent several hours in the morning reading in the hammocks located below the hostel with the sounds of the waves crashing. It was lovely. We had no food left though, so we headed toward town with the intention of grocery shopping. We stopped at a little “restaurant” called Betty’s, which was essentially just a woman cooking out of her house and enjoyed more delicious fried whole fish, rice, salad, patacones (fried plantains), sancocho de pescado (fish soup), and maracuya/pineapple juice. All for 15 mil, which is like $5. This was a fun walk as we had our speaker blaring out of our backpack and met a doppelganger for one of my friends.

Instead of heading back to the beach, we decided to stay in town and play some pool at a local billiards hall and drink some beer. While we girls were terrible, it was a fun time! On the walk back, we finally caught some of a sunset and took some cute photos. When we got back to the hostel, we had a nice surprise! Some baby turtles had hatched and they were going to release them, so we got to see them. Sadly, after the lady left with the turtles, we found out she was from a different organization and that you should release the babies right away in the morning because they only have about 2 weeks worth of energy from the time they’re born and the less time they have to try and make their way out to sea, the more likely they are going to die. 😦


Enjoying the sunset on our walk back from town

That night for dinner at the hostel, I learned how to make patacones Dominican-style thanks to my friend, plus a spin on taco salad with whatever we could find in town…chicken, cabbage, avocado, campesino cheese, and some homemade pico de gallo. Surprisingly it turned out very well! We made friends with people in the hostel, played more games, and hung out. This part of our trip was very relaxing!

Day 7: Hike, waterfalls, cooking dinner on the beach/preparing it in a river, coconuts, salsa dancing, and sunsets….the most amazing day ever

The day before, we had arranged to go on a hike that included some waterfalls and making lunch together right on the beach. We didn’t realize it was going to be as strenuous as it was as we tramped our way through the jungle, our guide Luis leading the way, chopping plants, and fashioning us walking sticks with his machete as we went. His 15 year-old son, Andrés, followed us from behind, making sure none of us got lost (which almost happened a few times). We arrived to the first waterfall, Cascada del Amor, and immediately jumped in. It was cold, but refreshing! We could even climb up on the rock wall behind the waterfall and them jump directly into it, which I did attempt to do once and failed a bit.


Then we continued on to a new spot which led out to the beach, with a fresh water river running by it and then into the open ocean. We were completely isolated, with rocks, jungle, and beach surrounding us on all sides. I can’t even express how gorgeous it was. We then started to prepare lunch. This began by chopping off some twigs and things for the fire and even using some of the trash as the flame to get it going! I didn’t like the idea of burning plastic that the ocean had thrown up onto the sand, but it worked. While we were doing this, the boys climbed out on some big sharp rocks with the son, Andrés, to learn how to fish like the locals do.  Aka: this means a spool of something like a giant wine cork with simple fishing wire wrapped around it and a hook. When I went out to the rocks later to try it myself, Andrés found me one of a million hermit crabs crawling around, threw it on my hook, and let me try spinning the fishing wire and tossing it out. We weren’t in a place where we could actually catch fish because of the rocks there, but it was still good fun!


Back to lunch preparation…Luis had brought rice, veggies, and one big fish, which he asked me to thaw a bit in the river. Now, while I have learned to love eating whole fried fish on the coast and will even eat out of the head a bit and munch on the fins, I hadn’t actually held a whole, raw fish in my hands before. I had fun with it though and quite enjoyed my task. After a bit, we left the fish lying on a rock still in the fresh flowing stream, and we started chopping veggies in the river. Luis found a long plank that served as our “table” and a smaller one for my “cutting board” and he proceeded to critique me on how I was chopping my onions. We chopped onion, tomato, plantains, and cilantro, threw them in the pot, collected some stream water for the broth, and then started cleaning the fish. He showed me how to descale it, take off some inedible parts, and then filet it in order to put in for the fish soup. I feel confident I could do it next time, except for when he chopped the head in half and threw it in. I had to tell him at that point that I wouldn’t be the one eating the head out of the soup!

While the rice and fish soup cooked over the open fire on the side of the beach, we took off for another waterfall a bit further down. This one was more for viewing and not for swimming, so we oohed and ahhed and headed back to our day’s “campsite”. Along the way, Luis found a good tree with lots of coconuts. He found a piece of vine, tied it around his waist as a makeshift belt, stuck his machete in it, and scooted his way all the way up this huge palm tree barefoot. Once at the top, as we all stood at the bottom with our mouths gaping open, he chopped off a bunch of coconuts that crashed to the sand below, and rapidly slid back down. It all happened so fast that we couldn’t help but burst into applause when he reached the bottom. We carried these heavy coconuts back to where our food was ready to eat, served it all up, and sat down to eat at our “family table”, which was just a long plank.


Can you see Luis up almost at the top?

Luis started chopping open some of the coconuts for us to drink. I cannot even explain to you: 1) how delicious that coconut water was 2) how much liquid is in each one! There had to have been a full liter inside. I demolished my food, which was incredibly delicious, but couldn’t drink all of my coconut. We had to have a chugging contest to get it all down. hahah. Then was the fun part of chopping them open to eat the soft, sweet coconut meat that was inside since it was an immature coconut. After watching one of my friends fail with the machete, I felt more confident in how to chop it open. Luis gave me some pointers, I held the machete over my head, swung with all my might….and missed. I basically just gave my coconut a haircut as I took off the side of it. On my second try, I succeeded in splitting the coconut probably 70% of the way and Luis helped me the rest of the way to get it open to the deliciousness inside, which I scraped out with the help of another piece of coconut as my “spoon”.


About to chop my coco open with a machete


Drinking away

I am the queen of question asking, so after so much coconut fun, I wanted more explanation on types of coconuts. Luis took me for a walk and started collected coconuts in different stages of maturation. He explained that the ones we were drinking from were the most immature, which is why they hadn’t fallen yet and the pulp inside was very soft. Then he found one in the second stage of maturation and he chopped it open down to the main seed part, which didn’t make any sounds when you shook it (unlike the immature one, where you can hear the water sloshing). I can’t remember the names of each stage. Finally, we found a dry coconut in the last stage of maturation, “coco seco”, which he chopped down to the seed inside and shook it so we could hear the liquid inside sloshing again. I still never understood by the end why we can’t hear the liquid in the second stage, but can again in the third stage when it’s actually called “dry”. I need to do more research! Anyways, Luis cracked open this center seed part of the most mature coconut and it looked like the coconut that we buy grated and is used in dessert. Personally, I don’t like this kind. I only enjoyed the immature coconut pulp, but I did learn a lot!


Gotta represent Colombia

After all of this, we cleaned up and started our hike back, this time walking along the giant rocks along the shore instead of through the jungle. I would say this was better, but it was actually harder to walk on, slippery, and one of the other girl’s shoe broke, so it was super painful for her to walk on the sharp rocks! Even though it was such an amazing day, we were glad to be back at the hostel an hour or so later to shower and celebrate our last night in Chocó. This involved eating leftover snacks for dinner, lots of drinks, games, and new friends. Plus a beautiful sunset, dancing salsa next to it, and a huge sky full of stars later that night!

**I would highly recommend a tour with Luis if you ever visit Chocó! There are so many more places he talked about taking us if we had more time. He’s spent his whole life in this area, has 4 kids, and is so knowledgeable and funny! (Except when he told me I had gotten more gordita just during our hike that day…jajaj) You can arrange tours with him through Daniela at the Pelican House Hostel or his phone number is +57-322-649-2549. Only phone calls are possible, and he speaks only Spanish. We paid just 50 mil each for this entire experience…that’s around $18 a person, which includes the tour, food, coconuts, everything for an entire day. It was incredible.


Such a beautiful place! I want to go back already.



Day 8: Return to Medellin

We were sad to leave the next morning. That day, I woke up a bit hungover, but enjoyed lying on my top bunk under my mosquito net as I listened to the waves crashing and the jungle behind us. All 5 of us had to squeeze into a tiny car that drove along the beach to get us to the same “airport” 45 minutes away, where we killed time with fresh orange juice and games before boarding our plane on the tarmac. Oh, and going through “security”, which was less here than I’ve had entering concerts in the US. The two military men with giant rifles looked at my small backpack and the shirt sitting on top, squeezed it once at the bottom, and passed me on. Unfortunately we had a rough flight back to Medellin, which left me almost in tears and panicking, but again, good friends let me squeeze their hands off for which I was very thankful.


Chocó was probably one of my favorite trips I’ve had since coming to Colombia. Part of it might be the fun group I was with. Another part might be because of the wonderful people of Chocó that treated us with so much kindness. Part of it might be because of the beauty I got to witness in terms of scenery and animals. Part of it might be because I love being at the beach. Part of it might be because it’s a less visited region, so tourism hasn’t taken over yet. But man, it was a wonderful place and I can’t wait to go back in July or August to see more whales!



Visiting Chocó: Prana Pacífico (part 1)

This past week, we had our October break and this is the first time I’ve gotten a full week off, so I decided to take advantage of it and finally cross off one of my bucket list destinations in Colombia…the Pacific Coast in the department of Chocó! Chocó is an isolated region along the northwest coast of Colombia and is only accessible by air or boat. Because of this, development has been very slow in Chocó and you truly get a rustic, unique experience. The main attraction of this region is the whale watching that is best from June to October when migrating humpback whales pass through.

Many people choose to visit Nuquí, but flights were already sold out when we went to book a couple months ago because they are small local planes coming from the Medellin EOH airport. So instead we booked to Bahía Solano. A bit later, we learned about a place called Prana Pacífico that was owned by a British gal named Linsey who was friends with some teachers from my current school. We decided to first visit her place for a few days and then head north to Bahía Solano. This first post will focus on the days spent at Prana Pacífico.

Day 1: Departure from Olaya Herrera airport in Medellin > tuk tuk ride > (wet) boat ride to Prana Pacífico

Our departure was uneventful besides one of our friends forgetting his bathing suit and having to rush back to the apartment while we waited in line at the airport. The local airline, Satena, is so small that they wouldn’t even check us in until an hour before so we hadn’t even moved in line. Luckily, all of our bags were just under the 10 kg limit and we were on our way! (Naturally I had to squeeze a friend’s hand the whole way to survive the smaller airplane with propellers where you can feel EVERYthing.)

Upon arrival to the Bahía Solano “airport”, we could immediately feel the change in humidity as we disembarked. (I use the term airport lightly, considering it was a small building with whales wearing Santa hats painted on it outside.) We were shuffled along to pay the tourist tax of 20 mil if you have a cédula extranjería (our ID card), or 30 mil if you’re a foreigner just visiting Colombia on a tourist visa. While paying the man for all of us as they wrote our information in a physical book, he must have known who we were because he gestured at a man behind me that Linsey had sent to pick us up and take us to the port in El Valle where we’d take a boat out to Prana Pacífico. I’m guessing they warned him that there would be five gringos coming, including one giant, blond one. We definitely stood out in this area!

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The airport in Bahía Solano

Riding in a tuk tuk is always an adventure, as it is essentially a moto converted into a small vehicle to carry up to 3 people. The “road” was all mud and puddles as it had been raining and continued to rain during our hour long, bumpy, wet trip to the port. Once we were in the town of El Valle, we bought some bread and met up with Carlos, an Argentinian man who would be taking us by boat out to Prana Pacífico. Fortunately, we had the foresight to bring garbage bags to put our backpacks into as it was a VERY wet ride. Well, at least for us three girls who sat in the back. The two boys stayed nice and dry in front of us…. After awhile, I even put on my poncho but still had so much salt water landing in my face that I spent the rest of the trip like a turtle with my head bent forward in my poncho. It was quite amusing to look at it now, but at the moment, a very long two hours.

When I popped my turtle head out of my poncho as the boat slowed though, I was in immediate awe. We were coming upon a small beach where the tide was washing over part of the sand and connected two sides of the island where Prana Pacífico is located. It is on its own private island, built up in the jungle at the top, so you have to walk up around 240ish stairs to get there. With all of our stuff, it wasn’t the most enjoyable stair stepping I’ve ever done, but Linsey had a nice cold beer waiting for us up on top, which I promptly chugged. She discovered the steps maybe a year ago when visiting this part of the coast, though they’re so well-hidden that I’m not sure how she did it. But she is running the place for the owners, which apparently used to be three brothers. The first one bought the land originally for around 50 mil (the equivalent of about $18) and later sold it to his two brothers for about 200 mil (around $50 profit…). Linsey is trying to update it and use it for yoga retreats, as well as a hotel. It’s a beautiful location and as it continues to get updated, it will be amazing.


The boat to the right is what we rode in on. The island to the front is where Prana Pacífico is located (at the top).

The rest of the day, we pretty much relaxed, laid in hammocks, took in the views, read, and I got an amazing deep tissue massage from Linsey on the back porch as the sun went down and I could hear the waves. Magical.

Side story: We did freak out a little as we discovered a MASSIVE spider hanging up above in the boys’ room, but the top part of all the rooms was open, so by the next morning, it had come into ours and was dangerously low to our mosquito nets. A bit terrifying, but the boys took care of it for us because they said they didn’t want to wake up to us chatting and screaming again. hahaha


“Rex”, our not so welcome visitor


Day 2: Rain, swimming, and whales!

Our second day started with a ton of rain, so we lazed around reading and playing games. There is a small jumping dock down on one side of the island, so the two boys and I decided to check it out. We checked if the tide was high enough, had some fun, and then someone had the brilliant idea to swim from the jumping off dock over to where our boat had arrived the day before. It didn’t look far, so I agreed. Mistake. Halfway through, as I fought against the waves, I realized this was a very bad idea and started to think about all the people who die in the waves, including in the book Refugee that I was currently reading for our book club. Thank God for one of my guy friends who basically let me be dragged by him the rest of the way to the beachfront. Never swimming that much in strong ocean waves again!


A lot of this happened during our rainy first few days!

Luckily the rain had cleared up by lunch (did I mention that the food here was AMAZING?? Linsey is an incredible cook. I think I gained 5 pounds this week alone.), so we were able to take advantage of it and go on our whale watching tour. There were several other boats in the same area looking for them and it did take awhile before spotting a mama humpback and her baby. The first time I saw the giant tail flip up out of the water, it took my breath away. Getting pictures and videos was hard, so I tried to burn it in my brain. We followed this pair for awhile, but it was kinda slow since they can stay underwater for so long. We knew ahead of time that we were near the end of the whale migration season for that area, so I was just happy to have seen something. But as we headed back to our island a few hours later, we happened to see a baby ahead of us jumping out of the water! My jaw dropped; it was magical. We watched this pair for awhile and the baby was very playful as he jumped, twisted, and rolled in the water. It was SO worth it and I feel lucky we got that experience. (Side note: I’m already planning on going back to the area where we stayed in the second part of the week in either July or August, which is the height of the season, if anyone wants to join!)

We returned to Prana Pacífico to Coco Loco Lunes, which was a delicious alcoholic beverage and served in the coconuts a local boy had cut down and brought up all the stairs (which I later learned firsthand that they are VERY heavy). Linsey also had prepared a bunch of fresh tuna sashimi sushi for us to enjoy plus a ton of other delicious food. We played games, chatted, drank, and enjoyed one another’s company.

Day 3: Attempted hike, a visit to town and termales, and local liquors

Our third day started with more rain, which we later learned is common in this part of the region to be so rainy. But it did start to clear up, so the two boys and I decided to do a waterfall hike that would take a few hours and then meet the others in town at the local thermal baths. Unfortunately, right as we got ready to head down the many stairs, it started pouring again. Knowing the hike to already be muddy even without additional rain, we decided not to go and it turned into more games and reading time.

Later we went down to the jumping dock again, took some pictures, and then headed on a leisurely walk along the secluded beach to the “town” of Termales. It is literally just a dirt path set a little ways back in the jungle with some homes and shops. The main attraction are the naturally heated thermal bath. But the 45 minute or so walk there is absolutely stunning as well. It is a huge stretch of gorgeous beach with just a few buildings along it. We took pictures, I did cartwheels, and the boys played Frisbee as we walked there.

Once at the termales, we washed in the cold river to get rid of all the sand and eased ourselves into the warm water. A man was there using a special type of rock that he rubbed against a stone to create a natural mud for facials. We got our facials on, drank some beers, and relaxed. Near sunset, we started to head back but walked by a lady selling some fish empanadas on the front porch of her home, so naturally we had to stop and enjoy one (or two, in some cases! haha). The walk back along the beach in complete darkness was a bit more challenging as none of us had lights and were getting bit by sand flies (we think), but we finally made it back and “enjoyed” a cold shower coming out of the pipe on the wall.

That night, we ate an amazing curry dish that Linsey created from who knows what and hung out, sad to know we’d have to leave bright and early the next morning.

Day 4: Boat ride to our next destination along the area of Almejal, near the town of El Valle, further north

After getting packed up, some breakfast, and loading up in our boat again, we made sure to put the boys in back this time, hoping they’d get soaked. Of course they didn’t, but a couple hours later, we pulled up along another huge, long stretch of secluded, beautiful beach to basically be dropped off right in front of our next hostel, Pelican House Hostel. I’ll continue this part of the trip in a different post!






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…