DESTINATION UNKNOWN

'We Have No Idea Where We're Going'

We decided to send our writer and his wife somewhere they knew nothing about. And we weren't even telling them where until the day they were leaving. At least that was the plan...

Susan pondering an alpaca sweater in Saquisilí (Susan Shepard)

Editor's note: These days, there are times when it feels like no matter where in the world you're going, you already know everything about it. Your guidebooks have clued you in to all the must-see monuments and museums. When choosing a hotel, you thoroughly researched other travelers' opinions; when you booked your room, you saw 360-degree views on the hotel's website and you may have even seen the very bed that you'll be sleeping in. (It's possible you also read about the destination in a magazine.) But while all this advance work can take some of the uncertainty out of travel, it can also remove some of the thrill. So we decided to send our writer, Jason Cohen, and his wife, Susan Shepard, somewhere they knew nothing about. And we weren't even telling them where until the day they were leaving. At least that was the plan...

Soon after Budget Travel booked our flights, Susan saw them listed on our Continental OnePass profiles. "We're going to Ecuador!" she announced, before realizing that she shouldn't have. (I told her she was a bit like Eve eating from the tree of knowledge.)

Ultimately, BT's editors decided that we should go as planned, as long as we agreed to do not one iota of research. Luckily, my knowledge of Ecuador began and ended with its latitude, while Susan only knew that the capital was Quito from a song she'd learned in a college Spanish class--and that our flight was to the southern city of Guayaquil.

We kept our promise not to read, talk, or think about the place until the morning we left, a plan that faltered only when the country popped up unexpectedly: the label of a fancy chocolate bar, a Vanity Fair article on a lawsuit against Chevron, a map of the Galápagos Islands on The Colbert Report.

Thanks to a missed connection in Houston caused by nasty weather (and the fact that there's just one flight a day from Houston to Guayaquil), it's 48 hours before we set foot in Ecuador. Our heads are filled not so much with possibility as with paralyzing indecision: Ecuador is the size of Nevada, and there are hundreds of places to choose from.

Having lost a day to travel and a morning to sleep, we're eager to get started--we crack open one of the guidebooks that Budget Travel sent us the morning of our flight. As great lovers of hot springs, we decide on a town called Baños. But in a mountainous, undeveloped country of lawless, laneless, sometimes-unpaved roads, what looks to be a three-hour journey on the map is actually a six-hour slog. Quito, which offers more appealing options as a gateway--and, at 9,300 feet, cooler weather than steamy Guayaquil--is also at least six hours by bus.

But Quito is only 45 minutes away via plane, and a one-way ticket is only $60. Before returning to the airport, we catch a cab to downtown Guayaquil's Parque Seminario, more or less your basic Latin American square (church, gazebo, statue of Simón Bolívar), with a reptilian twist: dozens upon dozens of iguanas, climbing up and down the trees, squirming in the grasp of little kids, and pooping all around the park.

We can't go to the Galápagos--too expensive, and they're a weeklong trip by themselves--but we can check in to Quito's Hostal Charles Darwin, a B&B-style place with a garden, a living room, and, sure enough, a bust and a framed sketch of evolution's father. The hotel is owned by a sister and two brothers, one of whom, Ramón, explains that the name is more about marketing than a passion for biology.

The hotel's hand-drawn map directs us to an Ecuadoran restaurant within safe and easy walking distance. We're expecting a casual place, but Rincón La Ronda is more like Quito's Tavern on the Green. On the first floor, there's a massive business-formal party; upstairs, a roaming band of poncho-clad musicians with drums, guitars, and Andean pipes entertain what looks to be a U.S. tour group. I flip for something I'll eat almost every day from here on out: humitas, fresh-ground corn and cheese steamed in husks; they fall somewhere between pudding and a moist muffin. My curry-like seco de chivo (goat stew) is also delicious, while dessert is a riddle: a stewed fruit that tastes faintly of apricot. It's tomate de árbol, the waiter tells us--"tree tomato," or tamarillo. We don't like the fruit nearly as much as we like the fact that we've never heard of it.

In the morning, we set off for Baños. Ramón checks our suitcases--we'll be backpackers for a day and a half--and lets the bill wait until our return. We go the first two hours by cab to Saquisilí, a one-church town that metamorphoses into a bustling mercado every Thursday. For the Kichwa people who come from all over the Andes, Saquisilí is a thrift shop, farmers market, Chinatown bootleg table, and Costco all in one. Spread out over several plazas are bulk spices, grains, toilet paper, DVDs, truck tires, sneakers, vegetables, kitchen utensils, and live chickens.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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