Before I left for Ecuador, a good 90 percent of the people I told about my upcoming trip warned me that it was too dangerous, the country too unstable, that I was going to get sick, die in an earthquake, maimed, drugged, robbed, killed etc. The general consensus seemed to be “dude, why didn’t you just go to Europe?” and “I don’t think you thought this through.” Stubborn as I am, I took most of this advice with a grain of salt. And I’m glad that I did.
Through my first week in Ecuador, I’ve had one of the best experiences of my life. Along the way, I came up with 5 reasons why I’m still alive:
1. Americans Think Everywhere Else Is More Dangerous than the USA
Look, I get it. There have been, and still are, a lot of problems with violence in a lot of South American countries. Nobody can deny that. However the problem is nobody can deny that violence is also a problem in the USA too.
The US suffers frequent mass shootings (as in the recent incident in Orlando) and some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Other places are not necessarily as dangerous as it is easy to believe.
Funnily enough, when I asked the people who warned me of my impending doom whether they had actually studied about, traveled to, or knew much of anything really about the country of Ecuador, none had much to say.
As it turns out it’s a relatively safe country to be in, especially compared to other places in Latin America. Quito has many of the same major issues as most of the world’s gigantic cities – petty theft, pick-pocketing, and drug peddling. I had no problems walking around alone. In the Galapagos, the islanders are very relaxed. I felt safer walking around San Cristobal at night than I do my own town.
Like everywhere, keeping your wits about you, knowing when to go out and who to be with will get you 85 percent of the way.
If there’s a piece of advice to give, it’s not to assume the worst about a country before you go. Arrive with an open mind and experience it for yourself.
I’m alive because the risk of dying isn’t necessarily higher than the US.
2. I Quickly Got Into Shape
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Ecuador had its own training program built into it in few ways.
As soon as I landed in Quito I had to battle 9000-foot elevation. At one point we took a cable car up to 13,500 feet. A couple of my classmates were sick and out for the first day with altitude sickness. Every walk up the stairs feels like the Boston Marathon. My hotel room in Quito is on the 4th floor and the elevator doesn’t even work. However, it gets much easier as the trip goes on.
I walked/hiked between 3 – 10 miles a day. When you tour in Quito and the rest of the Andes, be ready for hills, too. They’re everywhere.
If you want to see most of the popular spots in one trip, you won’t stop travelling or moving. There are too many places to see and for a small country a lot of areas are very spread out and difficult to get to.
On the Galapagos I had some of the healthiest food of my life. We stayed at a small hostel and ate foods raised in the wild or on small sustainable farms. Ditching the Doritos was a great feeling.
I shed at least 5 pounds of fat quickly, and I was 160 pounds at 5′ 7″.
3. I Respect Each Culture Individually
There’s no better way to find yourself in a sticky situation than to misunderstand the cultural norms of a new place.
Quick geography lesson: Ecuador, a tiny country, is split into four major regions. From East to West they are: The Amazon, The Andes, The Coast, and The Galapagos Islands. The Andes is a huge mountain range separating the coast and the Amazon Rainforest.
A 7 hour bus ride and 12 hour boat ride separates the main Amazon from Quito. Most mainlanders never see the Galapagos and vice versa because the only way to travel there is by plane, and the ticket costs $400 ($700 for foreigners) and the vast majority can’t afford it.
The islanders are different from city goers, and you can bet when I get to the indigenous communities of the Amazon and the Andes they will be unique and significantly different from the rest as well.
Ecuador is multipluralistic. Simply put, that means that unlike multiculturalistic America, where different peoples acclimate to a main way of life, these cultures have completely different ways of life. There are a lot of indigenous populations in different areas who have their owns cultures, customs and laws, completely separate from the cities and rest of the state. Many don’t take too kindly strangers.
If you do the wrong thing in the wrong context you could find yourself in a world of hurt. Cultural sensitivity and the ability to adapt to each individual community is a must.
4. The Wildlife in the Galapagos is Friendly
And I mean friendly. In California if I get close to a sea lion, it’ll bite off my toes. In the ‘Pagos, they’ll lounge around beach areas, and even climb up into areas where crowds of people are. I even caught a picture of one napping on a bench right next to the line for our boat to Santa Cruz. They slap at flies and leave humans be. They’re also really cute and cuddly-looking.
Iguanas didn’t attack even when we had to walk next to them on outdoor staircases. While snorkeling I swam with a pack of sea turtles that weren’t skittish at all; a classmate told me that in other areas, Hawaii for example, this was not the case, the turtles swam away from him at all costs.
My professor explained that this was because most of the animals have never been bothered directly by humans (except for the land tortoises, who get pretty scared now after centuries of being used as sailor food).
It’s a beautiful thing when nature doesn’t fear what never hurt it.
5. Ecuador Follows the Law of Common Sense
For a country much less concerned with security and safety, there doesn’t seem to be many more accidents.
Drivers fly down tight roads, stop short, cut and weave in traffic, several of my taxi drivers drove stick shift one-handed while on the phone.
And forget about pedestrian laws, because they don’t apply in Ecuador. If nobody is coming, you walk.
Buses get within inches of each other at 50 MPH. They take cars down dirt roads. The taxis in San Cristobal Island are pickup trucks where you ride in the back, and watch out because tree branches are not hard to find on the roads.
When travelling by sea you hop from boat to boat, and the boats run into each other using hanging tires as padding.
You can walk directly through active construction areas.
Despite all of this, nobody seems to have more problems than usual. In our time here, neither my classmates nor I have seen an accident. People seem to know exactly how to handle dangerous situations casually.
So there you have it, five reasons why I’m still alive. And being alive has allowed me to experience a place with beautiful sights – volcanoes, wildlife, clear water as well as wonderful people and a rich culture.
Now onward to the Amazon jungle where I’ll experience an area that close to no Americans ever will. And I’ll still be alive.
Giovanni Ferrante is a psychology junior. He is travelling to Ecuador this summer on a faculty-led program.