Our travel plans were simple, take a flight from New York to Miami, fly from Miami to Guayaquil and then head over to the Galapagos the next morning. Just 3 relatively short flights and we would be beachside in the land of sea lions and iguanas. Of course the term “travel plans” is one I use very loosely because when you are traveling, things rarely go according to plan.
Fortunately for me, I love this part. As you’ll soon learn through some of my stories, about 50% of my adventures happen when I am lost or don’t know what to do. We landed in Miami and completed the first leg of our journey without any hiccups. I later learned that when a pilot doesn’t show up for their job, the airlines rarely have a backup. Turns out our 10:00 pm flight was now a 10:00 am flight. Instinctively, we rushed over to the desk to see what kind of recourse we could get. We had rebounded pretty quickly and accepted the fact that our time in the Galapagos would be cut short. Then we had an idea, why not try to turn this into a mini side vacation? We would be spending a night in Miami because of this inconvenience, so the fact that we’d be getting a free stay in a nice hotel was a given, but why stop there? We would also need a few free meal vouchers for breakfast that morning and while we were waiting for our next flight. And then here is where we went a little bit crazy. Instead of going through Guayaquil, I wanted to fly through Quito and spend some time there while we waited for the next flight to the Galapagos. Quito is the beautiful capital of Ecuador and a South American city that many people never get to visit. I also had a friend there that had agreed to show us around. “But were going to need some accommodations for that” I said, politely but confident for my first time negotiating something like this. “You are right.” The woman at the front desk replied. She countered with 1 free night in a 4 star suite in Miami, free meals for two, a flight to Quito plus 2 free stays in a hotel plus free food. This was a pretty solid deal for an event that didn’t really cause us all that much inconvenience. It turns out we would basically be getting a 2-day vacation in Ecuador for free. What was even cooler was the last minute nature of it. We would get to see a city we never thought we would.
After recharging in our Miami hotel, and lounging poolside for a little bit, we headed over to the airport to make our afternoon flight. Not fully knowing what to expect, we headed onto the plane and began our initial decent. Another group of travelers we had been talking with had an unexpected incident, and one of the girls had gotten appendicitis while we were in the air. This whole flight was pretty crazy, but it was all just a blur to me. I do remember them asking if anyone on board was a doctor, which was concerning to say the least. Luckily, there was one brave man who stepped forward and potentially saved us an emergency landing. The girls boyfriend ended up staying with her in the hospital in Quito last night, and we helped the 3rd person in the group get to her hotel by sharing a cab. We heard all about her travel stories. This was her 4th continent this year, just as it was mine. My girlfriend and I got to the hotel and set in for what would be a rough night. They say altitude sickness effects half of people, and that was true for us. Quito is the second highest capital city on earth, and while I was feeling great, my girlfriend wasn’t feeling quite so good. I was sent on a mission to see if I could find any sort of medicine to give to her to make her feel better. That’s where the story gets interesting.
I approached the front desk and told the woman about my situation, asking if there was anything people do to lessen the effects of altitude sickness. “Many people come here and get sick from the altitude. Once they drink the Coca tea, they feel better” Coca tea? I wondered. As many of you know, I pride myself in being quite the connoisseur of tea but I had never heard of this. I would soon learn why. “What if it doesn’t work?” I asked, skeptically “Is there anything else we can try?” She replied with great confidence “Just drink the coca tea, you will feel better. “Where can I get it?” I asked. “Is there a pharmacy around here that sells it?” “Oh no” she said, giggling a bit at my naïveté. She then told me to go down the street and around the corner. I was cautioned not to wander around the city until my friend arrived to show us around, but my girlfriend was sick and I needed to help her out. I wandered down the street into unfamiliar territory, stopping by a few drug stores to see if they carried this apparently legendary tea. Feeling as I had no hope of finding it, I ventured back to the hotel, only this time there was a different person working the desk. Dreading the idea of having to explain this again, I straight up asked the new man at the front desk for some coca tea. He dropped his voice a little bit and said “mate de coco?” I nodded. He gestured to one of his associates and he brought me over to the dining room. I sat down and then another man goes into the back and pulls out a key to unlock the drawer. He then removes one tiny little orange packet of tea and serves it to me with some hot water. “This is getting weird” I thought to myself, but I had come to far to give up now. I drank the tea, and it was amazing. I went up to tell my girlfriend that the cure to her ails was in the lobby. After a quick Google search, we learned why we had never heard of this tea. Coca tea was illegal in the United States. Made from the same plant as they use to make cocaine, the government thought it was safer just to ban the use of all coca leaf products to control their flow northward. This product is an herbal remedy that is safe to use, but because it is used to produce a dangerous end product, it has been made illegal. “I’ll just take my chances with the altitude sickness” she said. On the way out, I asked the cleaning staff in my very limited Spanish if we could have some more. Not sure what transaction had taken place, I just thanked them and went into the lobby to meet my friend. All coked up and ready to hit the town, the three of us ventured off into the city to catch a bus into the historical district.
I have to say, I have been to some weird places but this city was a real culture shock for me. Even in the most tourist-centered part of Quito, there were people selling buckets of quail eggs as snacks. Also the altitude started to hit me as soon as we had to walk up a slight incline. I felt like I was climbing a mountain! At the top of the so called “small hill” was a parade with loud music and dancers. I felt so lucky that the one full day we were here there was a parade in town. We got to see a few churches and cathedrals, and even climb to the top of one on rusty metal scaffolding, a feat that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen back home. We saw the royal palace and got to have tea in one of the courtyard gardens nearby the city center. The climax of our journey was seeing the Loma El Panecillo, a huge statue overlooking the city. We took a cab up to the top and I ended up leaving my bag in the cab (of course). By the time I realized I didn't have the bag on me, the cab driver was already halfway down the hill, so I had to sprint down in order to catch up to him. Luckily the road spiraled up the hill so I had an advantage. It was still a full on sprint at over 9,000 feet of altitude.
We got home pretty exhausted and were greeted by three bags of coca tea sitting on the pillow. Looks like they did know what I was talking about after all! They even had a sense of humor about it, putting it right on my pillow like it was fine chocolate. I loved that. But we would need more than that for the trip ahead, so with my girlfriend I ventured into the part of town they were describing before. There ended up being a street market a few blocks from the hotel where we could buy the stuff by the box. This place was way to sketchy to go on my own so I’m glad she could come with me. The night was still young, so we went to go checkout the local mall. This was very interested, there were no escalators or stairs to be seen, just a cylindrical building with a spiral pathway leading all the way up to the top and at each level there were a few different stores. If the altitude wasn’t enough to make you dizzy, try walking in a tight circle ten times while you shop! We put the items that we’d bought back into our bags and pretty much forgot about them for the rest of the trip. After all, we had an entirely new adventure to embark on. An adventure to the Galapagos islands!