THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
Last-Minute Long-Haul: Quito
With airlines slashing fares at the last minute, we pitted two travelers against each other in a competition to have far-flung adventures on seven days' notice. The mission: fly eight hours and stay four nights—for $1,200.
Maria and the magic tree
Anyone can go to a city and tour churches for four days, but I wanted to experience the country's great—and proximate—diversity. And it turned out that the proprietor of La Casa Sol also owns a second hotel of the same name at the foot of a volcano overlooking Otavalo, a town famous for having one of the largest artisan markets in the Americas. I booked a room.
The next morning I set out by bus, for $5, on the lurching two-and-a-half-hour journey through the Andes to the other La Casa Sol (from $56 with breakfast and dinner), a multicolored lodge that tumbles down a hillside like a waterfall. My tab for one night in a large room with a fireplace and a small terrace: $56, including breakfast and dinner. I will forever remember it as one of the great bargains of my traveling life.
For an additional $15, the lovely desk clerk Marisol told me, she could have a hiking guide take me to see some local sites: Peguche Falls, a sacred waterfall; and El Lechero, a tree considered to have magical powers. I took her up on it and spent the afternoon in the footsteps of a guide named Maria, who so easily navigated gnarled trails and treacherous scree slopes despite wearing slippers and what appeared to be a formal black skirt that I dubbed her the Slipper Ninja.
Back at La Casa Sol that evening, I ate every scrap of the four-course meal, downed a bottle of Argentine merlot, and asked the waiter to prepare a fire in my room. I was asleep by 10.
Paying the gringo tax
I started my final full day at the Mercado 24 de Mayo, the labyrinthine market where Otavalo's townspeople shop. It is a poorly lit maze of stalls offering fruit, nuts, batteries, and towels, and it has a whole section stocked with tripe, sheep heads, and piles of quartered chickens. It was a stark contrast to the city's claim to fame, Otavalo Artisan Market (Plaza de Ponchos, Otavalo), which is in a square known—I kid you not—as the Plaza de Ponchos. I did not purchase a poncho, but I did my gringo duty by picking up a pair of drawstring pants, a bunch of cheap silver jewelry, a painting, and an alpaca-wool blanket.
For my return to Quito, Marisol arranged alternative transport that seemed almost decadent: a cab. Not my own cab—that would be a budget-busting $40—but a shared cab, courtesy of Taxi Lagos, for $7.50. The driver put one of my bags on the roof and motioned me to a sliver of seat next to two sleeping women, one of whom almost immediately began to teeter toward me. In the back—the trunk, essentially—was another woman, and in the front passenger seat was the tiniest old man I'd ever seen.
Three long hours later, the cab dropped me off in Quito at Hotel Café Cultura (Robles 513 and Reina Victoria, Quito, 011-593/2-222-4271, cafecultura.com, from $109), a century-old mansion converted by a Hungarian designer into an eccentric boutique hotel.
I had budgeted for a splurge on my final night, and it worked without me really even trying. With $250 left for the hotel, dinner, and some taxis, I decided to treat myself at Zazu (Mariano Aguilera 33 and La Pradera, Quito, 011-593/2-254-3559, zazuquito.com, entrées from $10), a Latin American fusion restaurant considered to be one of the best in South America and the kind of place where men in expensive suits eat alongside beautiful, much-younger women. It wasn't hard to understand the allure—from the ceviche sampler to the grouper in a spicy cream sauce, everything was extraordinary.
Along with champagne, dessert, half a bottle of sauvignon blanc, and tip, my total was $75. My planning had been perfect: I had just enough cash left to get to the airport, and then home to my Brooklyn apartment in a taxi—or so I thought. I neglected to factor in one last surprise: a $41 exit tax, payable at check-in. I busted the budget, yes. But it was a small price to pay.
Josh's top tip: Get out of the city and explore!
"Quito is spectacular on its own, but it's also special because of its proximity to Ecuador's diverse countryside. Within an hour of the city, you'll find beautiful 19th-century haciendas on volcanic plains, as well as ecolodges in lush rain forests. Combine all that with cheap transport, and there's no reason not to wander, even during a short trip."