It was on a bus from Tena, a small town bordering the jungle, to Banos, known for its hot springs, that I first met Michael, Ruth, and their children Brian and Lucy. We had both had the idea of taking the seven-hour bus ride at night so we could catch the sun rising over the magnificent Andes. We immediately recognized each other as fellow Americans and began to make small talk. It was midnight, but the kids were plenty excited about taking the night journey. Brian, age 9, asked his mom if he could sit up front with the driver, and she replied with, "I don't know…why don't you go ask?" Brian wasn't shy; he walked right up to the driver and asked in English, pointing to the open seat. The driver understood and approved, putting a big smile on Brian's face. I thought aloud, "Wow, that was very brave of him. I know kids who cling to their parents' legs when being introduced to family friends."
His mother Ruth explained that they'd been traveling around Ecuador for two weeks now, and both of the kids had shown wonder and curiosity about a world unknown. She told me that they stayed in hostels or pensiones with kitchens, and after sightseeing during the day would go to the local market, buy the evening's dinner, and cook it themselves. "We wanted the kids to have a cultural experience and be introduced to a new language at an early age. We do an hour of reading or looking up new words every night." What smart parents! I decided that's exactly what I would do when I had kids. Then Michael piped in that they'd been dying to visit Ecuador and the Galapagos for a long time. "So it's a win-win situation!" I replied.
Bouncing along the winding roads as we climbed to higher elevation, I drifted in and out of sleep. Well, I missed the sunrise, but Michael and Ruth let me know that because of the cloud cover it wasn't that much of a loss on my part. We bid farewell and parted ways. I looked back and had to smile when I saw Lucy waiting patiently by the fruit stand, eyeing the shiny, red apples stacked into a pyramid.
Banos was more than I expected, so much more that I extended my stay from the intended two days to a week. From biking along a waterfall path, to hiking the surrounding patchwork mountains, to soaking in the hot springs, I stayed very busy. There's a lot going on in Banos, and I ended up bumping into Michael and Ruth again in the town center, which takes on a carnival-like atmosphere every Sunday. Clowns on stilts, upbeat music, a main painted gold to look like a statue - Lucy and I were both fascinated by him! I gave Lucy a quarter (Ecuador has used the US dollar since 1999) and told her to put it in his can. Immediately the "statue" came to life and began mimicking a robot. I think Lucy could have stayed there plunking quarters in his can all day long. Later someone handed us a flier for a puppet show being held for kids. I told Michael and Ruth I would be happy to take the kids if they wanted a free hour. They were grateful, and Brian, Lucy and I made our way to the puppet show. It was all in Spanish and reminded me of Sesame Street. The audience was mostly Ecuadorian kids, and despite the language barrier Brian and Lucy became friendly with the rest of the group. It was a lot of fun, and I was happy I was able to share the experience with someone else from the States.
What's great about Ecuador is that it's about the size of Nevada but has four distinct ecosystems: the Andes, the jungle, the coast, and the Galapagos. It feels as if the beauty of four different countries has been compacted into one. The beauty of the Amazon isn't to be missed. Upon arriving the warm breezes will greet you, while the tropical scent of orchids lulls you into a state of relaxation. At Sacha Lodge, one of Ecuador's most family-friendly jungle lodges, kids can play in the gardens while you log some hammock time. There's something for everybody at Sacha Lodge; favorite activities include paddling in dugout canoes, observing toucans and the other incredible birdlife, and visiting the butterfly house where over 40 species are bred. Seeing the famous blue morpho butterfly float by is truly a unique experience. You'll have a chance to meet and interact with indigenous people, learn how to shoot blow darts, taste a lemon ant, and learn about medicinal plants. A friendly and knowledgeable staff will look after you and make your stay memorable.
To continue your learning experience, what better way to introduce kids to rare animal species than to teach them with a field trip to the Galapagos. The Galapagos Islands have a history of Spanish exploration and English pirates, not to mention Charles Darwin, who made his theory of natural selection based on his observations here. A five- or eight-day cruise will take you around to swim with playful sea lions and their pups, and to see giant sea tortoises, slithering iguanas, and extraordinary bird life. Galapagos is the real Sea World with unparalleled opportunities to mingle with the animals. A visit there is a truly unique experience, considering that these are some of the world's last completely untamed animals that are without fear of humans. Naturalist guides aboard your yacht will enthusiastically answer all of your questions about the region's plants, animals, and geology. A variety of activities from walking, snorkeling and swimming will keep you active, but the relaxed pace won't exhaust you - or your kids.
Lastly, a trip to Ecuador wouldn't be complete without a visit to the famous Otovalo market, three hours north of Quito. I suggest doing this at the end of your itinerary, as there are many tempting buys and lugging them around would put a damper on things! The main market is on Saturday morning, but there's also a slightly smaller version on Tuesdays. Be ready to negotiate - it's expected! Stands with piles of brightly knit sweaters, musical instruments unique to Ecuador, and gourds with intricate handmade designs might capture your interest. I was shopping around for sweaters when who did I bump into? Michael, Ruth, and the kids! What a surprise, but that's Ecuador for you; you're likely to see old friends in another, amazing corner of the country.