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Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

canoe amazon ecuador


Population: 15.6 million

Currency: U.S. dollar

Phrase to Know: Lo siento (I’m sorry)

Fun Fact: Ecuador began using the U.S. dollar in the year 2000, after a banking crisis devalued its former currency (the sucre). But it’s not all familiar greenbacks: The country mints its own coins for amounts under $1.

We Recommend: Visit an indigenous community to learn ceremonial dances, ride in dugout canoes or just get to know the people.

11 Best Ecuador Experiences

Have you been to Ecuador? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

desa familyMike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.

Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.

IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip?
Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.

IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.

It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.

IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far?
MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.

child cacao beans ecuadorOur favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.

Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.

Photos: 11 Best Ecuador Experiences

IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel?
MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.

Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip?
MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

To read more about the DeSa family’s trip, check out our sister site, Family Vacation Critic.

Check out more Interviews with Travel Experts!

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

As a traveler, is there any better feeling than finally crossing a trip off your bucket list? I did it myself last week with an expedition cruise to the Galapagos Islands aboard the 32-passenger Evolution; the trip was run by International Expeditions, which offers nature-based trips around the globe.

After so many years of building up expectations in my head about this trip, I can confirm a few things: the wildlife was just as exotic and unafraid of humans as I’d been told (swimming with sea lions is a memory I’ll never forget), and all those light-colored, quick-drying clothes I was advised to pack were definitely useful under the harsh equatorial sun. But as with any trip, there were a few lessons I could only learn through experience.

galapagos tortoise


1. Bring an umbrella (and not just for rain).
Are you sensitive to the sun? Bring your own beach umbrella! I’d initially packed an umbrella in case of rain in Guayaquil (where I spent a few nights before and after the cruise), but I ended up using it to provide shade during a few ultra-sunny beach days. It can also be useful for hikes, as trees can be scarce on the more arid islands.

2. Always keep your camera with you, even at meal times.
You never know when a pod of dolphins or a magnificent frigate bird will cruise by the bow of the ship, and you might miss a sweet photo op if you have to run back to your cabin to grab your camera.

3. Arrive at least a day early.
This advice applies to anyone boarding a cruise ship or joining an organized tour, but it’s particularly important in the Galapagos, where flights are limited and not all islands have airports. One family on our sailing arrived a couple of hours too late to catch our flight from Guayaquil to the islands, and ended up missing two full days of our weeklong itinerary.

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

4. Pack properly for snorkeling.
While your ship may provide wetsuits for snorkeling, consider packing a dive skin to wear under it both for warmth (especially between June and November when the water is colder) and for sun protection. Also, don’t forget your head! One fellow passenger, whose hair was thinning a bit, said that he wished he’d brought a swim cap to protect his scalp from the sun. Finally, consider bringing some alcohol-based drops to help dry your ears after snorkeling; this can help prevent swimmer’s ear and other infections.

galapagos sea turtle


5. Consider altitude sickness when planning your route.
The two gateway cities for flights to the Galapagos are Quito and Guayaquil, and they each have their pros and cons. While many travelers consider Quito to be the more interesting city, keep in mind that it’s located at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet, while Guayaquil is at sea level. Not everyone suffers from altitude sickness, but it can be debilitating — something to consider if you’re only going to be in town for a day or two.

6. Put the camera away.
When you’re standing incredibly close to an animal, it’s tempting to keep click-click-clicking away with your camera. But at one point, when I found myself watching a pair of albatrosses courting each other through the lens instead of with my own two eyes, I decided it was time to drop the camera and simply drink in the experience for a few moments — because who knows when I’d ever have this chance again?

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two exotic types of lodging.

Would you rather…

… sleep in a traditional yurt in Mongolia …

yurt mongolia



… stay in a jungle lodge in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon?

jungle lodge ecuador


A yurt, or ger, is a tent-like structure traditionally used by the nomadic people of Mongolia; it’s constructed of wool felt over a wooden frame, and can easily be erected and collapsed when the group is ready to move on. Yurt stays are available through groups such as Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel and Legend Tour. Ecuador is home to a number of remote lodges that allow guests to get up close and personal with the jungle’s unique wildlife and plants. A few to consider include Sacha Lodge, La Selva Amazon Eco Lodge and Kapawi Ecolodge.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot is of colorful cloth for sale in a market in Quito, Ecuador.

fabric cloth market quito ecuador


Read Ecuador Trip Reviews

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

— written by Sarah Schlichter