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...

In Quito, we stay checked in at the Darwin, but during a not-sure-where-we're-going stroll in the touristy La Mariscal district, we can't resist visiting a gringo oasis, the business center at the JW Marriott. Besides, we have just two days left in Ecuador, so speaking English with a tourism professional seems like a good way to maximize our time. We get directions, book our return tickets to Guayaquil, and arrange for an English-speaking cabdriver to take us to the equator on Sunday morning.

La Mitad del Mundo ("the middle of the earth") is a giant monument, museum, and shopping/dining complex where the locals gather every weekend. But 10 years ago, a GPS investigation found that it was about 250 meters off. The real equator is at the Museo de Sitio Inti-ñan (Inti-ñan is Kichwa for "Pathway of the Sun"), which offers a glimpse into indigenous life--blow darts, shrunken heads, an actual native house--as well as scientific trickery at latitude 0 degrees. The museum's guide, Patricia, drains a sink at the equator: The water shoots down into a bucket underneath like a rock dropped from a building. Then we move just eight feet south and north, where the stuff swirls (respectively) clockwise and counter-clockwise. The Science page at snopes.com says it's a trick, but it still looks cool.

We'd hoped to venture out of town again--perhaps to that cloud forest, or to an eco­lodge between the mountains and the coast--but it's Sunday in a Catholic country, and our exploratory phone calls go unanswered. We do finally locate two things we'd expected (and failed) to encounter readily: coffee and chocolate. Este Café is the place that Marshia at Posada del Arte mentioned when we said we'd like to see where coffee comes from. Owner Nicolas Jaramillo is trying to teach Ecuadorans to value the country's own crop--most people drink instant, and the country's coffee is mostly grown for export.

Around the corner is Kallari, a café and shop run by a cooperative of Kichwa villages. The Kichwa farmers grow cacao on the banks of the Napo River in the rain forest. Some of it is sold to European chocolate companies, but in an effort to create a sustainable economy and beat fair-trade wages by cutting out the middleman, they now produce three varieties of chocolate bars. Judy Logback, an American environmental biologist who works with the Kichwa, tells us that for $25 a day, we could make the five-hour trip to the town of Tena, stay with a local family, and see the entire chocolate-making process--but not without at least a few days' notice. Nicolas had said the same about the coffee plantation.

So it was with the whole trip. The general excitement of "What should we do now?" was mitigated by a lot of "Wish we could do that." Not knowing where to go and what to do was both unnerving and exciting, in the same way that being forced to use my dreadful Spanish was: When it worked, the satisfaction was that much greater. But without the practical ability to travel anywhere at any time, especially after dark--something we take for granted in the States--more than half our trip was spent on navigation and logistics.

A little bit of planning would have set the stage for more adventure. We might have flown to Quito, picked one region of the country to explore, and traveled with trekker's backpacks instead of wheelie bags. Our trip was like radical free jazz, the stuff that sounds frenzied and chaotic to most people. In hindsight, I guess we prefer jazz that builds off a recognizable structure or melodic theme. It's more user-friendly, but no less full of creative possibilities--as long as you know how to improvise.

Lodging

Hostal Charles Darwin Quito, 011-593/2223-4323, ecuanex.net.ec/hostal_darwin, $37

Hostal La Posada del Arte Baños, 773/572-8810 (U.S.), posadadelarte.com, from $28

Four Points by Sheraton Guayaquil, 011-593/4269-1888, fourpoints.com, from $80

Food

Rincón La Ronda Bello Horizonte 400 y Almagro, Quito, 011-593/2254-0459, rinconlaronda.com, humita $2.50

Café Good 16 de Diciembre y Luis A. Martínez, Baños, 011-593/3274-0592, ham sandwich $2.50

Este Café Juan León Mera N23-94 y Wilson, Quito, 011-593/2254-2488, estecafe.com

Kallari E4-266 Wilson y Juan León Mera, Quito, 215/297-0240 (U.S.), 011-593/2223¿6009, kallari.com

Activities

Las Piscinas de la Virgen Av. Juan Montalvo, Baños, $2

Luna Runtun Caserío Runtun Km. 6, outside Baños, 011-593/3274-0882, lunaruntun.com, hour massage $36

Mitad del Mundo 10 miles north of Quito, $5

Museo de Sitio Inti-ñan admission (with bilingual tour) $3

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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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