Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Frank and Shel Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel Drake is a professional travel photographer.
We found Ibarra to be a heavy-duty Ecuadorian city, ninth largest in the country with a population of around 200,000, and nary another North American in sight. We suddenly felt so far from the tourist corridor that we wondered if any Otavalo shoppers or Cotacachi pilgrims ever made it this far, another whole half-hour up the Panamericana.
I felt freer than I had since we’d arrived in Ecuador eight days earlier, finally beyond the gringo trail, almost beyond the guidebooks (which had nothing to say about how dangerous Ibarra was), out on our own in Ecuador, just this side of being splendidly lost.
We parked and walked as the business day bustled around us, the hot sun out the whole time, and wound up a little sweaty and tired in the shady park next to the Basilica la Dolorosa, studying the Moon map to find ourselves. The five-story Hotel Ecuador across the street looked fine to me, but not to Shel, so we consulted Moon’s accommodation recommendations and determined to stay at the Montecarlo across town.
Retrieving the car, we headed in that direction, stopping at the Mercado Amazonas along the way. This covered market is a sprawling mini-city of commerce, with literal acres and acres of vendors manning little booths selling fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, pastries, ice cream, almuerzos, jugos, groceries, sundries, shoes, clothes, underwear, and on and on, and we wandered around stunned at the size and scope of the place. Shel was fascinated by the meat, hanging in the open air, haloed by flies; all I could think was how many U.S. health-department regulations were being violated and it was fine with me.
We walked by a barber booth and Shel gave me a nudge; she wanted me to bring home an Ecuadorian haircut. I saw that the one customer chair was empty, so I went for it.
“Cuanto cuesta para cortar mi pelo?” I asked.
“Un dolar cincuenta,” the proprietor said.
I smiled, nodded, and sat down, while the barber donned his white working shirt, grabbed a comb and an electric razor, and proceeded to give me the kind of barbershop cut I hadn’t experienced since I was 12 years old. Then he whipped open a straight razor and stropped it to a fine edge, with which he scraped the back of my neck. Finally, he sprayed some kind of brand-new-haircut spritz on me, made a few adjustments with the scissors, and I’d been barbered Ibarra-style — lighter by a head of hair and a buck and a half.
Shel kept exclaiming how good I looked and staring at me with such wide eyes and such a big smile that I was suddenly a little desperate for that hotel room. Oh yes. I subtley nudged her back to the car, then made a beeline for the Montecarlo, rented a room with the usual hard-as-a-rock mattress and squeaky frame, but it was one of the most blissful beds I’ve ever had the pleasure to employ and the rest I’ll leave up to your imagination.
Afterwards, I started encouraging Shel to get a haircut too.
The Moon guide recommended the Montecarlo as the “nicest place in Ibarra for the money,” with a small pool, hot tub, sauna, and steam room (open to the public for $1), and though we didn’t get wet, we did feel like, once again, we’d found a little urban resort ($44 for the night).
We walked around town till dusk, then ducked into a Mom and Pop eatery, with Papa at the cash register, Mama — and a crying baby — in the kitchen, the teenage daughter waiting tables, and a couple of fourth or fifth graders running in and out. I ordered una hamburguesa and we soon heard the meat being put through an electric grinder in the back. That job turned out incomplete, so I couldn’t chew through the burger; I had to sort of suck the meat from the unground connective tissue, which was messy, but still tasty. In South America, you never know what they’ll pop on top of the burger; this one had a fat slice of ham, a thin slice of cheese, a fried egg, and hearts of palm, plus lettuce and tomato, all stuffed between a bun. Shel had a big slice of pizza and an empanada, and we shared an agua con gas. When we were done and I went to the caja to pay, Dad told me, “Dos dolares ochenta-cinco” — $2.85 for the whole dinner.
“Muy economico,” I told him. “Muy barato (very cheap).”
He smiled proudly.
Heading back to the hotel after dark, we stumbled onto Rosalia’s, the famous helados de pailla parlor that’s been owned by the same family since 1896, a true Ecuadorian eternity. No leche in this brand of ice cream, just ice, sugar, and fruit mixed together with a large wooden paddle in a pailla (a sort of large copper wok). We spoke to the grandson of Rosalia Suarez, whose recipe launched the business 114 years ago; Rosalia lived to 105. The friendly server let Shel taste several flavors and she instantly took to tamarindo, which has the rich consistency and sweetness of a date, combined with the tartness of a plum. Two scoops in a sugar cono cost, if I recall correctly, 80 cents.
In the morning, eggs came with the fruit, roll, fresh jam, coffee, and tea for breakfast at the Montecarlo, and then we were off, around the mountainside on the Panamericana in intense traffic behind two glacially slow-moving dump trucks, kilometer after kilometer at no more than 20 per hour. Finally past, we bypassed Cotacachi and Otovalo, then drove south back into Quito to catch a 2:15 flight to Cuenca.
Now we were in heavy city traffic, no more three-lane highway for us. I had to keep reminding myself that Quito was 30 miles across and the north side of the city, where the airport is, stretched a long way. Signs were few, far between, and mostly directionless; the trick is to stay to the right to avoid the underpasses that peel off to the east and west, which I discovered after having to turn around once.
We also had to get gas, so I ducked into a station, told the attendant “Lleno (full),” and dodged the boys selling windshield wipers. After 350 kilometers, the gutless Nissan took seven gallons of gas, costing $10 at a nationwide fixed price of $1.48 per.
We finally found Mariscal Sucre, but the rental-car dropoff was nothing like we were used to. Tiny cubbyhole storefronts were lined up on the far side of the international terminal, one right next to the other — Budget, Avis, Hertz, Localiza — with traffic whizzing right past the front doors. Just beyond the row of them, we swerved into a little unsigned driveway and blundered into the parqueadero.
The Budget yard man received the car and examined the scratches as we unloaded our luggage. The same good-looking young English speaker we’d met the previous Sunday in New Town was manning the counter. He, too, took a look at the damage from the alambre de puas, then made a phone call. Hanging up, he apologized to us, saying that the insurance didn’t cover driver error, only automobile accidents necessitating a police report.
I wasn’t surprised to hear it. “How much do we owe for the damage?” I asked. I put the over/under at $300 and was betting on the over. I figured I’d just put it on the credit card.
“Well, we have to fix the fender and the lid of the trunk, so it costs two times.”
“I understand,” I said, raising the over/under to $500.
“Again I’m sorry, but we have to charge you one hundred dollars.”
I smiled and tried not to laugh as I thought, a C note is all? Hell, I can pay cash. I love this place! I reached for my wallet and pulled out a Benjamin Franklin, humming “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
In the States, of course, it would’ve probably cost $600 for the repairs, another $240 for the three days out of service, and another $1,000 for some sort of weasel money that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“Labor’s cheap,” Shel whispered and boy, was I grateful that my first-ever mishap in a rental car occurred in Ecuador. Unbelievable.
When the Benjamin appeared from my pouch, the yard man’s eyes got wide and he immediately disappeared. I wondered where he went, till the gutless Nissan pulled around to the front door, our suitcases and bags loaded right back into the car, the man behind the wheel. We piled in and the yard man zipped us a block to the domestic terminal. I handed him two Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, common in Ecuador, and made his day, after Budget Ecuador had made mine.
But one more little hassle awaited us at the TAME counter. If you recall, when we bought our Cuenca tickets in New Town the previous Friday, I’d forgotten my passport and the ticket agent took stray numbers off my paper driver’s license. Well, now the airport agent asked for my passport and those numbers didn’t match. She sent us to the TAME service desk, where the agent sent us back to the ticket counter, where the numbers were still unacceptable, and I started to think of the movie The Terminal, where Tom Hanks, a man suddenly without a country, is stuck for months at JFK.
Another agent and a supervisor got involved — all this in Spanish, of course — before Shel proved once again that she’s the brains of the outfit by figuring out that I needed to show my driver’s license, pointing to the tiny string of DMV code to match the mystery numbers on the ticket, and that seemed to satisfy everyone. We got our boarding passes, sailed through security, and sat down at the gate, smiling and shaking our heads. Only in Ecuador.
And as Shel went off to ladies room and to find some food, I marveled, for the millionth time in my life, over the miracle of travel. Mere hours earlier, we were eating huevos revueltos at the Montecarlo in Ibarra. We’d retraced our three-day route back to Quito, found the airport and the rental-car parking lot, paid a pittance to get out of the Budget jam, solved an ID discrepancy, and were about to board a flight to our City of Dreams: Cuenca.
Photo captions: twin church spires in bustling Ibarra; sausages and meat air-curing in Ibarra's Mercado Amazonas; the blissful bed at the Montecarlo; Ibarran models; a country road on the outskirts of Cotacachi; huge watermelons at Mercado Amazonas; and Corn grows everywhere in Ecuador