At the time, we didn’t realize it, but we were so lucky that this trip was actually able to happen!
As I’m writing this, we’re on day 12 of nationwide protests in Ecuador. Probably, you haven’t heard about this because the international news coverage has been strikingly thin.
In short, CONAIE, the organization representing all indigenous groups in Ecuador, started protesting on June 13. They have ten demands, the top priority being gas prices, which have nearly doubled. The others included more time to pay back loans, more money for education, and stopping mining (the mining issue directly affects the Napo region, where Tena is).
Also, side note, yes. Gas prices have risen globally. However, I think a key difference here is the average income in Ecuador versus the United States or Europe. Especially for those living in more remote communities, a nearly double price in gas hurts a lot more than in other places. That’s not to discount those struggling elsewhere, only to say that everyday life here can be very different than everyday life in the US or Europe.
Anyway, here we are. Most of the protests have been concentrated in Quito or the surrounding towns and communities in the Andes mountains. As of today, many roads leading out of Quito have been blocked with rocks, cars, or burning tires. As expected, with a crowd of 10,000+ in the capital city, there have been some reports of violence, but the majority has been peaceful. Given its proximity to the Amazon region, Tena also has a large indigenous population and has become more active in the past few days with local protests.
However, what you notice the most is the food and gas shortage. Locally, the road blockades have stopped trucks from entering Tena. Nationally, the major distributors have been blocked; food and produce have been unable to make it to the distributors, so (obviously) it’s not being distributed. So, according to reports, food has just been left to spoil.
The same is true for gas. Trucks have been unable to restock the gas stations and the propane tanks for cooking. So, fewer taxis have been running, and the buses and trash service have also stopped. So, shops and restaurants are generally closed, and Tena feels like a quiet Sunday morning but it’s a Friday afternoon.
So, how does it end? Both sides keep calling for negotiations. The government has conceded some smaller demands, but they haven’t budged on the gas prices, saying it will cost too much to lower them (gas is government-subsidized here). The CONAIE says that they will keep up the protests until the gas prices are reduced. Now, people are starting to get annoyed that the country has been forced to a standstill, and counter-protesting has begun in some places. So, I guess only time will tell!
The point of all this was to say that Mary Beth and I were extremely lucky that we could visit everywhere we wanted without issue because the protests started on the third day of our trip!
We bookended our trip in Quito with a stopover in Mitad del Mundo, aka the equator!
With only one full day in Quito, we did some wandering through the historic center, went to the La Compañía de Jesús (the golden church), and stopped at Jimmy’s in the Mercado Central for lunch. However, the day’s highlight was definitely the Basílica del Voto Nacional!
Basílica del Voto Nacional
Supposedly, you can see several volcanoes from the tower. Naturally, it was cloudy that day, so we saw zero, but the views were still spectacular.
And, I hope you’re ready to climb some steep stairs. My second trip up did not make it better! 😆 But, they did make some improvements since Shane and I first visited some months earlier. Their new stairs included a glass platform (😬), and the entryway ramp got an extreme makeover!
And speaking of views in Quito…
Several people recommended Cafe Mosaico, which was a perfect spot for our final night. I mean, these views. 😍 They also have canelazo, a warm, spiced orange apple cider-like (alcoholic) drink that just topped off these views.
El Mitad del Mundo
The middle of the world!
Visiting the equator is something we just HAD to do! But, I didn’t expect to enjoy the Intiñan Site Museum as much as I did. The equator is about 40 minutes north of Quito, so on our way back from Mindo, we stopped for about an hour to check out the middle of the earth.
There is another (and probably more famous) monument at the Mitad del Mundo, but, fun fact, it’s not actually on the equator! However, the equator line at the Intiñan Museum is the real-deal (proven by our tour guide’s GPS).
We were led on a guided tour through the museum, which was much more informative than I anticipated. And, of course, you got to take the typical-tourist-but-I-gotta-have-it-anyway picture!
A quick little story about the next picture. Our tour group included two delightful older couples who, when asked, “Do you want to take a romantic photo?” jumped at the chance for a picture kissing across the equator. So, when it was our turn, I asked Mary Beth, “Do you want to take a romantic photo?!”
She said no. 😐
So, I made her hold hands anyway and we ended up with this. 💗
Finally, the tour ends with some REALLY FUN experiments involving the equator. For example, everyone had a chance to try and balance an egg on a nail.
My recommendation? If you’re short on time, choose the Intiñan Museum over the main monument!
Do you know what I hate? Not rules. I actually don’t mind rules. I may not always agree with them, but I know what to expect from the situation.
What I hate is ambiguousness.
When it comes to bureaucratic nonsense, I get it. There are going to be hoops to jump through. But, I want to live in this new country. So, if The Man says “Jump!”, I’ll say, “How high?!”. However, if you say “Jump 3 feet,” and I do. Then, you say, “Just kidding, 4 feet!” and I jump again, and it’s STILL not the correct height. Then, I have a problem.
I’d say this sums up our experience getting a visa in Ecuador, which is something I never expected.
The Professional Visa is one of the most popular visas in Ecuador because the qualifications are pretty straightforward. You need:
At least a Bachelor’s degree.
Proof of a minimum $400 per month income.
A valid passport.
Sounds simple right?
Ok, so theoretically, it IS simple, IF you know what you need. Here’s the problem. The website is woefully unclear about specific details that will get your application rejected… twice if you’re lucky like us.
So, here’s what we had to do for Shane to get a Professional Visa. I applied for a dependent (Amparo) visa, which I’ll also cover. If this information saves only one person from the headache that we went through, it was worth the effort of writing.
Don’t care about the details? Feel free to stop reading here. I won’t be offended.
Getting a visa in Ecuador requires jumping through more hoops than expected. Start early, expect missing documents and delays, and be patient. In the end, it’s worth it!
Quick Disclaimer: The rules around visas change quite often. For example, the rules for the Professional visa changed in February of 2020. So, double-check the Professional visa and Amparo visa rules before you get started.
Part 1: Before Arrival
You will need to bring the following documents with you to Ecuador.
The original diploma or a certified copy of your highest academic degree, with an apostille.
Original or certified copy of your transcripts from your highest academic degree, with an apostille.
Note: If transcripts are unavailable for whatever reason, you must obtain an official letter from the university stating why there are no transcripts.
An official letter from your university stating the mode of study, with an apostille. Ecuador prefers face-to-face instruction versus online.
Note: This letter can be combined with the transcript letter (if applicable).
Background checks (i.e., certificate of good conduct) for each place you lived in the past 6 years, with an apostille.
If you’re American, this means State and Federal background checks.
Passport photos (5 cm x 5 cm).
Important: The background checks are only valid for 6 months. So, plan accordingly!
For the Amparo visa:
Since this is a dependent visa, you don’t have to prove your education status. However, you do need:
Background checks (i.e., certificate of good conduct) for each place you lived in the past 6 years, with an apostille.
Original or certified copy of a marriage certificate (or equivalent), with an apostille.
If you’re bringing dependent children: an original or certified copy of their birth certificate, with an apostille. Background checks are only required for persons over 18 years old.
Part 2: After Arrival
Step 1: Register with Senescyt
Senescyt is the governmental body responsible for higher education. All degrees in Ecuador are registered with Senescyt, including international degrees. So, if you want a Professional Visa, then your degree must be recognized and registered with Senescyt.
Now, this is where things start to get complicated because Senescyt takes *theoretically* up to 45 days to process your application and register your diploma. However, for Shane and Lucie, this process was longer.
Tip: Register your diploma with Senescyt as soon as you arrive in Ecuador.
Enter on a 90-day tourist visa, start the Senescyt registration process, then apply for the visa towards the end of the 90 days.
Once they grant the visa, you have three months to register your diploma, or they revoke the visa.
So, if you apply for the visa, then start the registration process, you will likely run out of time, as in Shane’s case. He had to contact a lawyer to help get an extension with the visa office. It worked, but avoiding that situation would be better.
If you don’t have an original diploma (e.g., a certified copy), then you must get a notarized statement (in Ecuador) explaining why you don’t have the original. They will reject your application without this.
After you submit the documents online, you will have to appear in person for someone to verify them. We had to make a special trip to Quito for this.
A copy of your thesis is required online, but a printed copy is not required in person. Take a digital copy. This is for a plagiarism check.
It IS possible for them to reject the application even after you’ve passed the online and in-person check… speaking from experience.
Registration costs are $30 and must be paid in cash at a specific bank.
Once everything has been submitted to the online portal, it takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days for them to accept the application. After that, you’ll be invited to pay. Only after the payment has been processed (another few hours to ~24 hours) will you be able to make an appointment for the in-person document check.
….then, you wait!
Step 2: Translations
Don’t bother translating anything before you arrive.
We did, and then we paid to translate everything again because apparently, the visa office “can’t trust translations done in other countries.” 😐
You’ll need to translate:
Diploma + apostille
Background checks + apostille
Marriage/birth certificates + apostille (Amparo visa only)
Tip: All translations should have a Sworn Affidavit.
We used TranslatorsEcuador and have only glowing things to say about them. They were fast, responsive, and really worked with us in a time crunch. They also speak English.
Step 3: Visit the Notary
If you want power in Ecuador, become a notary!
Seriously, our experiences at various notaries reaffirmed that they are the gatekeepers for all things bureaucratic. Oh, and don’t expect consistency. However, mentally prepare for it to take forever and for the entire interaction to be in Spanish (it’s required).
So, you’ll need notarized copies of the following for the visa application. Also, the visa requirements do NOT indicate that your documents must be notarized but trust me. They do.
Diploma + apostille.
The letter explaining an alternative diploma (if applicable).
Three months of bank statements (you will have to log in to your bank account before the notary and print your transaction list. (Weird? Absolutely.)
Marriage certificate/birth certificates + apostilles (for the Amparo visa only).
Tip: Bring the translations to the notary. They won’t notarize documents in English or other languages if a certified translator isn’t present.
Also, you will need to translate the bank statements.
Pro-tip: Use Google Chrome at the notary and discreetly auto-translate the website to Spanish before they print and notarize it.
Step 4: Apply for the Visa
The visa application appointment itself is pretty easy, and it’s straightforward if you have all the required documents.
First, request an appointment online. I say request because you don’t actually get to select an appointment time. Also, we got appointments extremely fast. We requested the appointment after hours and had early morning appointments the next day.
Tip: This is Ecuador. The appointment “times” are flexible.
So, don’t stress if you’re a bit late. They only seemed to care about the appointment date, not the time.
When you arrive at the offices, first head across the street to one of the many print shops. You’ll need to buy a folder (ask for a carpeta), hole-punch all your documents, and print the appointment confirmation (the confirmation email doesn’t tell you this).
Include in the carpeta (one per person):
Appointment confirmation (put this first)
Notarized copy of the diploma/title (Professional visa only)
The original translation of the diploma/title (Professional visa only)
Passport copy (no notary/translation required).
Certificate of Migratory Movement
Marriage certificate (Amparo visa only)
Birth certificates (if applicable, Amparo visa only)
Notarized bank statement.
Original background checks.
Original translations of the background checks.
Proof that you lived in the country where the background checks were issued** (e.g., a driver’s license copy, residence permit, apartment lease, etc.). Translation and notary is not required.
** This is NOT listed in the visa requirements. However, we were nearly rejected for not having this information. Luckily, they let us leave to print proof and come back.
For the residency proof, translation and notarization isn’t required. However, for example, if you lived in country 1 from 2018 to 2020, then the document must indicate that you were in that country in 2018. So, we used copies of driver’s licenses and residence permits that had issue and expiration dates.
Once your folder is in order, just head inside and get in line (there are signs). You’ll receive a number and just wait to be called.
Tip: Be prepared to wait.
There were only 2 (maybe 3) people processing visa applications. So, depending on how many people are ahead of you, it takes a while. Bring a snack and some water! However, if you need reliable wifi or want a real meal, I recommend this place, across the street.
Tip: Bring cash.
You’ll pay for the visa while you’re with the processing employee (there is a bank inside). However, they only accept cash.
If everything is correct, you’ll receive your visa by email in a matter of hours. You’ll have to sign a confirmation document, though. So, recommend lunch across the street while you wait.
Oh, and you know that pretty passport photo you brought with you? They won’t use it. Instead, they’ll take a new one with you half looking at their sh*tty webcam.
If something goes wrong, then don’t stress. Ask them to write down what is missing so you can correct it and try again. If you’re running out of time on your 90-day tourist visa, you can extend it once and give yourself another 90 days.
Three trips to the visa office, four online Senescyt attempts, and two in-person Senescyt trips later, we have visas (for two years, at least)!
You can see how this process takes way more time than expected. For us, it took 4 months (October to February). So, start early, expect delays, and be patient (easier said than done, I know).
Sometimes I forget that Tena is actually a city surrounded by nature…rainforest nature. A mere 2.6 km outside Tena is this beautiful resort tucked away in the forest. We first heard about Arahuana from Shane’s work colleague, who described this magical Resort del Dia (resort for the day) package. So, a few weeks ago, when Shane had a day off, we decided to switch up the routine and check it out!
A quick side note.
When I said “a few weeks ago, when Shane had a day off work,” I meant that in the literal sense. As of this post, he’s on day 17 in a row. I recently posted about our six-month impressions of Ecuador. What I didn’t include in that post was our six-month impressions of the work.
In short, it’s relentless.
I think I can speak for Shane when I say that the project is great, and he genuinely enjoys what he does on a day-to-day basis. However, the problem is two-fold.
It’s a lot of ‘effin work to take care of 100+ caterpillars, a plant house to feed those caterpillars, and 15+ cages of butterflies. Every. Single. Day.
His experimental design takes about ~2 weeks for one round of data collection.
For some context, it takes 1 to 2 hours to feed the butterflies and anywhere from 4-6 hours to feed the caterpillars. Shane and Lucie should also be running experiments somewhere in there, given that’s the whole reason we’re here.
They’ve hired research assistants and have recruited student interns, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a lot of work that can’t be neglected. Unhealthy caterpillars mean no butterflies, which means no data.
So, my least favorite part about living in Ecuador has nothing to do with Ecuador itself; it’s Shane’s work schedule! Honestly, I expected him to be busy, but I did not expect the lack of routine days off. But, with time, I (we) have come to accept this new reality. I, especially, needed to shift my expectations so I wasn’t aNoYEddd 😤 all the time. And luckily, I’m a field biologist now, so I can come and help when he needs or wants it.
I share this because I think being honest about living and working abroad is important. It can look dreamy from afar, but there are downsides.
I also share this to emphasize how EXCITINGGGG it was to go relax at a resort for the day!
Ok, so back to this magical place in Tena.
The Resort del Dia package is $25 per person for 3 or more people (or $30 pp for 2). It includes access from 10 am to 4 pm to the entire property, which has beautiful paths throughout, an observation tower, and a spa (for an extra cost). Most importantly, they have two pools… and let’s be real. We were there for the pools!
The package also includes a $15 credit towards food and drinks (alcoholic also) and a room for the day. 🤯 Anything you spend over the $15, you can pay at the end of the day.
By the grace of the weather gods, we had a beautiful, sunny day, which we spent by the pool drinking German beer (apparently the owner is German) and just… doing nothing! It was fantastic. We didn’t eat in the restaurant, but we did consume more than just beer! 🤪 We opted to order lunch from the pool bar/bistro.
We went on a Tuesday and essentially had the place to ourselves. So, the next time Shane has a sunny day off, I think you’ll know where to find us!
That’ll technically be Baños de Agua Santa since you may know that baños also means toilets. However, throw that “de aqua” behind it, and you’re talking about a water bath, for which the town is named. Baños de Agua Santa is near the Tungurahua volcano, thus named for the natural hot springs in the area!
Besides the thermal baths, Baños de Agua Santa (commonly called Baños) is known for its adventure activities. It’s also only ~3 hours from Tena by car (~4 hours by bus). So, when Lucie considered what to do for her 30th birthday in March, Baños was an obvious choice.
So, Lucie, Edd, and I kicked off the weekend with birthday pancakes, then hopped a bus to Baños!
Unfortunately, our weekend was a bit muted since Lucie’s stomach decided to revolt (as they do every now and then). Apparently, it missed the memo on Baños the town versus el baño…
Anyway, Baños has apparently exploded in tourism over the past few years and was nearly unrecognizable to Lucie, who visited about 8 years before.
The bad news. It’s a bit more expensive (but by no means unreasonable), and you have more of that typical tourist city center vibe. The good news. There’s a ton to do and nice places to eat!
Stuff to Do
Since we only had the weekend, we didn’t venture much outside of the city, but there are a ton of hikes and waterfalls in the area. The most famous is probably the Ruta de las Cascadas (the waterfall route), which is not a hike per se, but some hiking is required to get to each spot.
However, from town, you can hike to laCasa del Arbol, a famous treehouse swing with a view of the Tungurahua volcano. That hike (called Las Planes-Runtún-Ventanas on the sign) is ~3 km and takes about 2.5 hours. Since we were without Lucie, Edd and I decided to do the Virgen de Ventanas route, which takes about 1 hour for 1 km.
…Yes. You read that right. 1 hour to go 1 km? We thought no way.
There were A LOT of steps. Honestly, I was really sad Shane wasn’t with us. It’s one of his favorite things to do in new places, climb a sh*t ton of stairs.
…that’s sarcasm. It’s me. I can’t resist the stairs.
Anyway, the views are lovely on the way and at the top, so it’s worth it. We forgot to pay attention to what time we started, but it took at least 45 minutes to get to the viewpoint.
Considering you can bike the Ruta de las Cascadas, I’d also put that activity in the adventurin’ category. But wait, there’s more! You can go rafting, ziplining, canyoning, and via ferrata-ing (is that a word?)! There are tour companies everywhere, so these activities are easy to schedule. Also, most can be done in the rain, which is good news since Baños is located in the cloud forest, which means rain is common.
We opted for ziplining ($25 per person). This was a great activity on the morning we planned to leave since the whole trip (from hotel pickup to drop-off) took about 2.5 hours.
The entire experience was really fun and included 6 routes that got progressively longer. The final route was 550m over the canyon with gorgeous views of the river below! Lucky for you, I brought the GoPro… and then left it in my backpack. 🤦♀️
Do you like all things Spa-like? Well, Baños has got ‘ya covered. There are tons of spas in the area that offer a wide range of treatments (at various costs). For the most part, though, if massages are something you enjoy, they are VERY reasonably priced here.
For example, we went to the Huellas Natural Spa and had an hour full-body massage and a half-hour full-body scrub with volcanic ash for $40. I CANNOT recommend that full-body scrub enough! The massage was wonderful, and the scrub made my skin feel like butter. So, DO IT.
Regardless of the spa treatments, Baños is famous for its thermal baths. I must admit, I wasn’t too sure what I would think of the thermal baths. Shane and I went to one in Budapest, and we mostly just felt kind of bored and awkward. Everyone was just sitting around, not really talking… I dunno. It was weird.
Can you spot me? Shane said it was like “Where’s Waldo,” wife version.
We went to the original Termas de la Virgen, but there is also a newer and larger complex a minutes walk past the original ones. However, I’d go back to the original ones! No awkward vibes here. Everyone treated the baths like warm swimming pools, and the atmosphere was relaxed but fun.
Oh and yes, the swim caps are required. You can buy one for $1 at the baths, but we bought one from a vendor on the street for $0.50.
These baths cost $3 and are open from 5 am to 4 pm, then they close for a bit and reopen from 6 to 9:30 pm (for $4, not sure why it costs more).
If you’re feeling fancy, there are some amazing-looking baths at the Luna Volán Adventure Spa that overlook Baños, but they are considerably more expensive. You can stay in the hotel, which includes the baths or pay $66 to visit. However, this does include the baths, a facial, and dinner. Maybe next time.
Things to Eat
There were a ton of restaurants to choose from, some better than others. We did have a delicious dinner at Haycha Restaurant (Ecuadorian food) and some proper coffee (Honey Coffee & Tea is a popular spot).
However, head to the Mercado if you want a more authentic (and less expensive) food experience. We tried llapingachos ($3), fried potato pancakes served with egg, sausage, and avocado that originated in the Tungurahua region (aka, Baños area). And, of course, there are tons of fresh juice stands. We also saw cuy (guinea pig), if you’re feeling adventurous.
We also encountered some, uh, unexpected sweets.
Apparently, this has to do with a tree that, legend has it, would… um… improve the size of one’s particular appendage. 🤷♀️ We definitely didn’t expect to see this, though!
Where to Stay
There are an overwhelming amount of hotel options, but we finally narrowed it down to La Posada del Arte, which was very close to the thermal baths and out of the main area, so it was quiet at night. The breakfast was fantastic, and our rooms had a waterfall view!
So, Happy Birthday Lucie, and until next time, Banos!
It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been in Ecuador for six months!
Talking about how time flies feels cliche; it’s simultaneously so overused but so true. On the one hand, it feels like we’ve been here for a while. We’ve settled into our apartment and gotten into a daily routine. On the other hand, where the hell did six months go?! And on Shane’s hand (…’cause I ran out of hands), I think, “We’re running out of time!” Two years here are going to FLY, and I have a lot of travel plans!
…I guess Shane has a lot of data to collect too, but, ya know, I have my priorities, and he has his. 😆
Anyway, impressions of Ecuador! That was the purpose of this blog, so here we go.
Luckily, the ability to work here isn’t a problem since his salary comes from Germany. However, our ability to stay in the country longer than the six-month tourist visa allows IS a problem. I’ve got a whole post about this, but I had been waiting to post it until things were resolved. This only happened literally last week. So, if you’re into reading about the real-life struggles of moving abroad, it’s a post to look forward to! 🙄
The main problem? The rules aren’t clear. Look, we are those overly-prepared people when it comes to this kind of thing, but you have to know what you actually need! It really trips my trigger, so I’ll just leave it at that. 😆 The second problem? Our Spanish isn’t that good yet, and people’s patience with bad Spanish is hit or miss. We were lucky to have Lucie to translate.
Oh, and FYI. Notaries are the kings of this country. Any official document needs to be notarized, but you’re at the total discretion of the notary. This process for various documents has taken 10 minutes to 3 hours. So, ya know. Go prepared and bring a snack.
Necesitamos hablar Español.
We immediately assumed that Spanish would be necessary, unlike in the Netherlands or Germany. Honestly, this isn’t a bad thing. We spent six years in the Netherlands and should have spoken better Dutch than we did, but we weren’t forced.
After six months of living in Ecuador, my Spanish is better than my Dutch or German was after the equivalent amount of time. I know that Shane would say the same thing.
We’re both improving, but we are also having two different learning experiences! Shane is getting that “thrown in the deep end” kind of deal through his work interactions. The guy that delivers their plants even told him that his Spanish had improved! On the other hand, since I’m working from home, I started online Spanish classes with Lingoda. Occasionally, they have “Sprint” promotions. So, I committed to taking 15 1-hour classes per month for two months. If I complete them all, I get half of my money back. I’ve already decided the refund will go towards more lessons because I’ve really enjoyed this method and can tell I’ve improved!
So, maybe the next time we need to deal with the notary, they will be a little more willing to work with us.
The food es más o menos.
Now, I can only speak for the Tena region because the food seems to vary if you’re on the coast, in the mountains, or in the jungle.
I say the food is alright because it’s kind of boring. We’ve certainly got some favorites (ceviche, anyone?!). Still, outside of those handfuls of things, there aren’t a lot of options in Tena. For example, I really enjoy $2.50 almuerzo (lunch), but it’s all variations on the same–soup, tea or juice, a small piece of meat, a small salad, a huge portion of rice, and usually a side of beans, lentils, or potatoes. It’s delicious, but every restaurant serves something similar.
Our food options for cooking at home are also more limited here, so we’ve had to completely rethink what meals we prepare. We’ve found that we are missing at least one ingredient for nearly all our go-to meals in Europe. We actually have a decent selection of vegetables, but their availability is hit or miss. So, meal planning is doable but more challenging.
But, as I said. We’ve found a few favorite Ecuadorian dishes and a couple of repeat-worthy restaurants in Tena. So, the food esmás o menos.
Nevertheless, we really enjoy Tena.
Tena feels like a city in the jungle.
I mean, you can see a volcano from our roof!
The city itself has a lot of cement…but! you don’t have to go far to be fully immersed. Ikiam University, where Shane works, is a prime example. It’s only 8 km outside of the city but is surrounded by jungle.
Speaking of the city, everything is LOUDDD.
The gas and trash trucks play music*, the shops blast reggaeton from massive speakers on the sidewalk**, and people CAN NOT resist a microphone and a speaker. On the sidewalk, in the bed of a truck, in front of a restaurant. It can be a lot***. 😆
* I personally love it, but it’s still loud.
** Again, I don’t hate it, but it’s still loud.
*** Perhaps it becomes more enjoyable as my Spanish improves.
Tena feels like our new normal.
When we arrived 6 months ago, I didn’t anticipate feeling this way. We didn’t have expectations other than we knew it would be very different from Europe and the US. However, when we first arrived, I remember feeling overwhelmed by all the newness: the language, the cultural differences, even just learning how the shops worked. Every day was a new learning experience.
For example, how do you get off the bus when there’s no stop button? Yell “gracias!!” when you want the driver to stop, of course!
We also didn’t anticipate how much it rains here. Sounds ridiculous, I know, given that we’re in the rainforest, but when you envision Ecuador, do you think of heavy rain every day? We didn’t. 🤷♀️
It’s funny, though, how with time, things just become normal. Six months ago, I didn’t anticipate being OK with literally chopping the head and feet off a chicken to make dinner. I also didn’t anticipate finding it strange to flush your toilet paper (now, it goes in the “baño bin”). And, I certainly didn’t anticipate being on a WhatsApp texting basis with the couple that runs the laundry service. Hell, I didn’t expect to have a laundry service! Shane never thought he’d be crushing spiders with his bare hands to save the butterflies, but here we (well, ‘he’ in that specific example) are!
But, for us, that’s the beautiful part of living abroad. Tena has been our biggest “challenge” to date, but I also wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cerro Mandango, also known as “the sleeping Inca,” isn’t the only attraction in Vilcabamba, but it’s certainly one of the main ones. It felt wrong to leave without checking it out. So, when we found ourselves without plans on the last morning of our butterfly collecting trip, we hit the trail!
This was quite easy to do since the trail shows up on Google maps, and you can walk from the center of town.
The hike itself starts out pretty easy. The path is well marked, and it’s not so steep. In fact, we found ourselves alongside a youth group from a local church, and two men carrying a giant cross passed us going up. Turns out, they were holding a church service that day around the halfway mark.
Eventually, the trail does get steep and rocky. Still, I’d say it’s accessible to just about anyone. However, I would recommend feeling sure on your feet and taking your time.
The trail has three viewpoints. The first is at a cross with 360-degree views of Vilcabamba and the surrounding valleys.
The second is across the ridge, presenting you with that prime-time view of Cerro Mandango!
We didn’t make it to the third viewpoint at the summit of Cerro Mondango. Unfortunately, we were out of time, given that we had about four hours of butterfly packing ahead of us. It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to make it to the second viewpoint. I would venture to guess another hour, and you would be at the summit. However, we were warned to avoid the summit on windy days since the trail is narrow and on the ridge.
Notably, the trail was pretty popular. We started fairly early in the morning and only encountered a couple of people (excluding the youth group that stopped halfway). However, we passed quite a few on the way down. So, I recommend an early start, especially if it’s a beautiful weekend day, as in our case!
Oh, and bring water! You’ll want it. 😅
So, have you figured out why it’s called the sleeping Inca?
It might be hard to tell from my pictures, but the mountain looks like a face lying flat, looking up at the sky from the side.
This hike was a great way to end our time in Vilcabamba. Hopefully one day we have a chance to make it all the way up!
Ok, not really, but I did go on my first trip to the field with Shane, and I don’t think I did half bad! Shane has been to the field a few times now. He went to Tanzania for his PhD project and joined a group in Corsica between his PhD and postdoc. Honestly, these trips were pretty awful for him since I couldn’t come.
I’m being completely sarcastic.
They were hard work, but he loved it. On the other hand, I had to stay home and “go to work” and “be responsible” and 🙄. But you know what? Not anymore! Thanks to my freelance editing job, I have the flexibility to tag along!
This trip was quite a learning experience for me. So, I thought I’d go through some of the basics.
First things first…
How do you find the butterflies?!
Word of mouth!
We were looking for two specific types of butterflies: Heliconius erato cyrbia (the blue one) and Heliconius himera (the black, red, and yellow one). For us, locating them was relatively simple because Heliconius butterflies are an expansive and extensively studied genus. So, collaborators and other Heliconius researchers have shared or published GPS coordinates where they previously found these specific butterflies. I can’t speak for those looking for other species, but I imagine it’s similar.
So, that’s how we ended up in Balsas (for cyrbia) and Vilcabamba (for himera).
Now, GPS coordinates are great and all, but they don’t actually tell you HOW to get to said location. For instance, when we showed up at the first location in Balsas, the GPS coordinates did not tell us to climb under a barbed wire fence, wade through the boggy area, and scale the (very muddy) hill.
How do you catch them?
With a net, of course!
However, this requires a little skill, some quick (or quick-ish, in my case) reflexes, and patience. My crash course from Lucie was something to the effect of “never swipe from the top—it’s nearly impossible to catch them that way,” “try and swipe from behind so they don’t see you,” and “make sure you have a good swoosh and flip!” (to keep them in the net, naturally).
We all had misses, some more comical and frustrating than others. Conversely, there were some pretty solid catches—Shane and Lucie both had a couple of two-at-one-time instances! I found with time, I worked out my own “catching style,” if you will. Shane and Lucie are rapid-fire-quick-swoosh kinds of people. I, however, am not. 😂 I caught more butterflies once I abandoned the aggressive swoop and went for the steady swoop. Slow and steady catches the butterflies… that’s the saying, right?
It’s in my net. Now what?
Bag ’em up!
Ok, so it’s really more an “envelope ’em up” scenario. This trip taught me that while butterflies are fragile, they can withstand gentle handling. Once they are in the net, you can lightly pinch the wings to stop them from flapping and easily move them. The simplest mode of transport is a small envelope with a bit of cotton in the bottom, which maintains a small pocket inside the envelope so they don’t crush their head and eyes. Once the butterfly is in the envelope, it may be able to move around a bit, but it can’t flap around and damage its wings. Once it was safely in the envelope, they went into the “butterfly box” (an official term), aka a small plastic container, to prevent them from being crushed.
Where do you keep them, and what do they eat?
We temporarily stored the butterflies in pop-up cages so that they could fly around a bit (but not too much). As for food, we fed them sugar water… individually… by hand… twice a day. 😳
You can imagine, as the number of butterflies increases, so does the amount of time it takes to feed them. By the end of the trip, we spent 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening feeding.
How do you transport them?
It’s out of the pop-up cage and back into the envelope, my pretties!
This process takes quite a bit of time. I think it took us around 4 hours to pack ~150 butterflies. They need to be fed first, then carefully put into the envelopes—more so than in the field. Ideally, they ride on the little cotton ball, and a loose paperclip on the outside of the envelope holds them in position.
Once we were back in Tena, they were unpacked and placed in larger cages.
So, are you ready to go collecting now?
Theoretically, it’s simple. However, finding the butterflies can be challenging (especially so, depending on the species), and it’s a long day of work. Fun work! But it’s a come home-eat dinner-go to sleep kind of work.
A little belated, of course. A brief life update. We DO have visas now, but the process is still ongoing. So, more on that later. For now…
Christmas in Tena!
Since we went home to the US twice this year (🙌), we knew we were going to stay put for the holidays. Plus, someone has to take care of those darn butterflies. So, Shane, Sophie (a master’s student), and I stuck around Tena. It was quite a low-key Christmas. The city was decorated with lights and (fake) Christmas trees. Honestly, what I found most interesting about the decorations was that they were all made out of an outdoor, weather-resistant type of material. I mean, it makes sense given the periods of intense rain and sun. It’s just not something I ever considered! For example, the tree in the main square was a metal frame wrapped in green outdoor carpet-looking material. But, when you turn the lights on, you would never know the difference!
Also! I did manage to find a glühwein alternative while we were in Quito for the visas. May I introduce you to canelazo! It’s a warm, orange and cinnamon, alcoholic (or not) drink popular around Christmas. Since we’re jungle-dwellers now and froze at ~10,000 ft (2800m) in Quito, canelazo was a welcome find.
On Christmas Day itself, we spent a few hours in the morning with the butterflies, a few hours watching Christmas movies and the rest of the time sippin’ drinks on the roof!
I will say that the warm weather did influence our Christmas spirit, even though we heard it was quite warm in the US on Christmas, too. The build-up to Christmas just wasn’t as Christmasey without the cold. However, Shane, Lucie, and I did host our first lab Christmas party, which was full of spirit thanks to the Christmas decoration EXPLOSION in all of the shops around town. There was certainly no shortage of decoration availability. I think my favorite purchase was our nativity-like scene (we were missing baby Jesus).
New Year’s Eve
Fun fact. This is our 6th New Year’s Eve in a row in a different country!
And, what better way to celebrate than by setting covid on fire!
The ańo viejo (old year) is Ecuador’s biggest New Year’s Eve tradition. Essentially, at midnight, you burn paper mache characters or whole dummy’s made from old clothes and stuffed with sawdust (called monigote), leaving the old year in the past.
We didn’t experience this, maybe because Tena is a smaller city or maybe because of the pandemic, but apparently, some cities have huge monigote, making for equally huge bonfires.
So, we did as the locals do and bought a monigote and burned that mf’er in the street at midnight! Oh, and to solidify your good luck for the next year, don’t forget to jump over your monigote 12 times.
We burned covid in the street… notice how dark it is? That’s because the electricity went out shortly after midnight throughout the city for about 10 minutes. Seemed fitting for the burning, though.
Other Ecuadorian NYE traditions include eating 12 grapes at midnight for good luck (also a tradition in Spain, which my family had already adopted) and wearing yellow or red underwear for general prosperity or love, respectively. Unfortunately, I found out about the appropriate underwear color too late, but I’ll be prepared next year. Individual fireworks are also popular, and we had a lovely view of them from our roof!
Shane and I did some reflecting on 2021, and overall it wasn’t a bad year.
It started out pretty bleak. We were in hard lockdown in our basement apartment for seven months, and I wish I had a heat map of the circles I walked in the neighborhood. I think the lowest month was around March, when things were improving elsewhere, but we had no end to lockdown in sight. Plus, we had no clue when we could go home again and if and when the lab would get approval to go to Ecuador. I’m a plan-ahead kind of person, and I couldn’t think about anything more than a week in advance. Essentially, I could only look to the following Saturday when I had my “big outing” to the grocery stores. We also had a major dip, losing Meatball unexpectedly. In hindsight, the trip to Ecuador would have been difficult on her 16-year-old kitty bones, and she would have melted in this heat. It’s not the same without her, though.
The beginning of the year may have been bleak, but for us, 2021 constantly improved. We got out of lockdown then limbo when Ecuador travel got approved. We enjoyed the beer gardens in Munich and went on a few hikes. We saw our families twice in one year!! My sister got married, and we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary, canoodling through Munich. We moved to a new country and flew first-class for the first time. 💁♀️ Importantly, Shane is finally able to do the research that he was hired to do. Also, I bought my very first laptop at the age of 35, and Taylor re-released TWO albums! So, all in all, not too shabby.
Happy New Year, everyone, and best wishes for 2022!