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.

By Josh Dean, Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009, 12:00 AM

At the sacred Peguche waterfall in Otavalo

There was a time when taking an affordable long trip at the absolute last minute was dif­ficult, if not impossible. For instance, anytime before now. Airlines have typically required seven days' advance purchase on their cheapest tickets, but dire circumstances have forced them to be more flexible. "I've never seen so many no-advance-purchase tickets available," said George Hobica, founder of bargain-hunting website Airfare Watchdog, when I called him for advice. "If you have money, travel."

Amen, George! My first choices were North Africa and Turkey, because they're exotic and I had never been. Marrakech had cheap hotel deals, but searches on all the major discount engines crushed that dream: It was at least $1,000 to get there, or for that matter, to Cairo or Istanbul. Hobica suggested Rio de Janeiro, where new routes had sparked a bidding war, and suddenly the clouds parted. Flights were under $500! But then I realized I'd need a visa, which would cost an extra $130 and take as long as five days. I made a half-hearted $400 offer for a ticket on Priceline and was rejected. No time to waste—I moved on.

A detour to wholesale-flights.com only fueled my frustration. There was a $437 flight to Santiago, Chile, but the site doesn't let you book online. I called the 800 number.

"Sir, that will be $900," a woman told me flatly.

"But your website says $437."

"That's before taxes and fees. If you can get those fares, sir, good luck to you."

Gee, thanks. I hung up and pushed onward, bouncing from site to site, city to city, with increasing mania.

Hobica had told me that he preferred to use Orbitz or Cheap Tickets for international fares, because their search options are more flexible. I varied departure times and dates, and one city kept popping up as the cheapest: Quito, Ecuador, which I'd heard was not only spectacularly situated but also as well preserved as any colonial city in the hemisphere. No matter which way I finagled it, the fare hovered around $580, on American, with a stop in Miami. I made a last-gasp attempt at Priceline, offering $400 and getting a $560 counter, with two stops—and promptly went back to Orbitz and plugged in my credit card info.

¡Hola, Hugo Chávez!
It was night when I strolled into my Quito hotel, La Casa Sol (Calama 127 and 6 de Diciembre, 011-593/2-223-0798, lacasasol.com, from $56 with breakfast), in a landmarked building in the town's nightlife center, La Mariscal. I had selected La Casa Sol by cross-referencing the reviews and locations of under-$80 spots on a number of sites (TripAdvisor, Yahoo Travel, Frommer's).

I decided to begin my first day in the planet's second-highest capital city (behind La Paz, Bolivia) by ascending to the loftiest point in the area: the 15,419-foot volcano Guagua Pichincha. There was virtually no line when I arrived at Telefériqo (011-593/2-225-2753, $8), the gondola, even though guidebooks warn that the wait can be up to four hours on weekends (I was there on Sunday). At the summit, the view was amazing: The city is long and thin and extends in two directions in a valley that sits between rows of green peaks.

Quito's Centro Histórico is a warren of cobbled streets with enough churches to occupy an entire afternoon, making the area a prime draw for tourists-and those looking to target tourists. As in any crowded city, it's wise to keep an eye out for pickpockets, but I never felt threatened. I visited several churches, my favorite being La Compañía de Jesús (Calle García Moreno and Calle Antonio José de Sucre, Quito, 011-593/2-258-4175, entry $2), a massive baroque affair with an ornate white exterior and an inside that could raise Liberace from the grave. Gilding its surfaces is said to have taken seven tons of gold and over 163 years of construction.

From the church, I wandered into the city's verdant Plaza Grande, where a crowd was buzzing outside the steps of the Presidential Palace. Traffic was blocked off, and the steps of the grand edifice were teeming with military personnel decked out in ceremonial feathered hats, brass swords, and the like. I lingered for a while, waiting for something to happen. Then a motorcade whisked into the plaza. Commandos hopped from trucks, a band broke into song, and out stepped Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, and his guest of honor, none other than a smirking Hugo Chávez.

It was the kind of bizarre surprise that makes a trip memorable, and I celebrated with some goat stew (a national specialty) at Tianguéz (Plaza de San Francisco, Quito, 011-593/2-257-0233, sinchisacha.org, entrées from $6), a restaurant inside the base of the gigantic monastery on Plaza de San Francisco. Dessert was a bowl of tropical fruit topped with crema and raspberry sauce at the decadent Frutería Monserrate (Calle Espejo, near Plaza Grande, Quito, desserts from $2), a short walk away on Calle Espejo. And I topped it off with a pisco sour at Café Mosaico (Manuel Samaniego N8-95 and Antepara, Quito, 011-593/2-254-2871, cafemosaico.com.ec, cocktails from $5, entrées from $5), a bar/restaurant on a hillside across from Parque Itchimbía with city views so awesome that they justify the overpriced (for Quito) $5 cocktails.

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."

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