La Casa Verde: A Great Place for (Honest) Information in Baños Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai Exclusive for Vagobond

Maybe it’s because I’m from New York. But I hate when people try to sell me stuff I don’t need. If I ask a simple question, don’t try to sell me a package tour or pawn me off on your café-owning best friend. When traveling, I appreciate nonpartisan information that’s given through genuine honesty. After seven weeks of backpacking, my husband and I arrived in Baños Ecuador, a hot spring town cradled in the Andean Mountains. The town is small, the food is international, and views spectacular. So, we decided to stay.
Banos, Ecuador
In a tight-knit community like Baños, you have to remember that everyone knows each other, that sometimes information is shaded by personal relationships and past mishaps. This is why Neil and I chose our source of information carefully when we were looking at apartments. We turned to two expats: Rebecca and Doug Greenshields.

Expat Information in Baños
Owners of the top-ranked La Casa Verde Eco-Lodge, Rebecca and Doug have lived in Ecuador for over four years. Their son Jon was born here. Their successful hotel thrives here. They wake up in the morning to guests munching away on homemade breads and they’ve a calendar full of newcomers even during low season. They are happy and content—which makes them good candidates for travel information.

Greenshields Family, Banos EcuadorNeil and I stayed at La Casa Verde twice: once for 8 nights and then again for 2, before we moved into our apartment. Both times, we reserved rooms at this hotel. Upon check in, we received area maps, restaurant suggestions, and a tour of the lodge. Green walls and natural light filter into the entry, more lounge than reception. Recycled glass bottles create a peaceful mosaic, casting red, green and blue shades on the staircase. When we asked about tours and spa treatments, they iterated what their guests had reported without plugging their own agenda. It was a nice change up from other towns where the owner stated: “There is no tourist information office and this is the only company that goes to the waterfall.” Sure.

La Casa Verde was different and that first night’s rest was the best we’d had in Ecuador.

In the morning, the Greenshields joined us for breakfast and our barrage of questions began. How much does an apartment cost? What’s typically included? Do we bargain? What areas should we look at? Who’s the best landlord? We’d a slew of queries and they answered each with thoughtful consideration. “Start looking and know exactly what you need in the apartment,” Rebecca advised. “Straighten out your budget and have a number in your head for bargaining. And be firm.” Doug added. Even if we stumped her with a question, Rebecca would find us at dinner and report back on what she’d researched in town. Between hammering away on the new La Casa Verde extensions, Doug would chug water and offer his help. “Word of mouth still works here.”
beautiful scenery in Banos, EcuadorIn Baños, the internet isn’t a main mode of communication. The best maps are hand drawn and photocopied with scrawling notes. Business transactions can be low tech. People buy, sell, and rent through flyers in windows. “Just have a walk ‘round town.” Doug suggested. “You’ll see all the rooms for rent.”
So we strolled. We rang doorbells and inquired in Spanglish about apartments. The process wasn’t difficult. Over two and a half days of hunting, we’d visited 3 apartments. Prices ranged from US$200 to $450 per month for fully furnished, ready to go apartments.
We negotiated. We weighed options and decided on a two-bedroom flat with TV, WIFI, all utilities, and proximity to the main square. Final price (post-barter): $330.

A week after living in the new apartment, we ran into the Greenshields in town. Their son had his tricycle, Rebecca was comfortably enjoying her 2nd trimester and Doug sported a broad-rimmed hat against the summer sun. In front of Casa Hood Café, we stood and chatted like expats, catching up on the news from La Casa Verde. The extension was waiting on windows. New volunteers from San Francisco were lovely, and our open invitation to visit was offered once more. As Doug, Rebecca, and Jon walked into the café for lunch, we thanked them again for all their help. They shrugged it off in a neighborly way. “Just come visit us. You have to see the new deck!”

4 Shopping Meccas of Ecuador and Peru

By Melissa Ruttanai

Shopping is often an integral component of any travel itinerary. You’ve malls, kiosks, and street fairs where locals showcase everything from handcrafted silverworks to traditionally stitched clothes and one-of-a-kind woodcarvings. In our first five months in South America, Neil and I were able to visit four of the most famous shopping meccas of Ecuador and Peru.

Northern Ecuador’s Otavalo Saturday Market
Ecuador marketLauded as South America’s biggest market, the Saturday Market in Otavalo, Ecuador is more like a melange of three markets: textiles, fruit, and live animals. During the week, vendors sell their wares on a smaller scale (and often with competitive prices) that includes hats, scarves, and jumpers. But as the weekend reaches full swing, the usually tame fruit, animal, and textile markets swell into each other, blurring the borders between each other so that shopaholics can stroll between the three without much effort. Furthest from Otavalo’s central plaza, the animal market, located just past the soccer stadium, is an open lot of mewing calfs, bagged guinea pigs, playful kittens, and giant hogs lounging in an open field or beside their owner’s pickup trucks. Early risers may catch a glimpse of street-crossing ducks as they clog traffic, much to the amusement of gringo onlookers.

Cuenca’s Weekend Market in Southern Ecuador
Peruvian Fruit JuiceBursting at the seams with produce and indigenous locals, the Feria in Cuenca is located west of the historic center, a short bus ride from the city’s Old Church. It seems like everything here is a dollar: toilet paper, local honey, grains, rice, and juices. As you walk into the complex, fruit vendors praise the freshness of their wares as two-month old puppies yip for attention. Fish mongers stack tilapia, trout, and catfish in high mounds and as locals cluster for the best cuts, young apprentices sweep and spray the walkway to the stalls. Wrinkly faced grandmas sell whole roast pigs with skin so crisp they flake off into luscious chicharron chips. As a seafood lover, I had to admire the beautiful baskets of purple river crab sold just off the main avenue. Each little crustacean had its lavender-black claws tied up with a cream-string bow. I only wish I had time to have a crab boil in my hostel.

San Blas Artesian Market of Cusco
Buying art in CuscoArtists and artsy admirers will fall in love with the San Blas district of Cusco. Not only is the city renowned for its Incan past but it currently (and rightfully) boasts a bohemian culture that produces works across media including oils, brass, gold, bronze, and weaving. Uphill from the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, San Blas is lined with little workshops, most family owned and handmade to souvenir-perfection. While many pieces are religious and encompass the Virgin and Child as well as the Nativity, the artwork in general pays homage to the life of the campesinos, or country people. Two shops that must not be missed are the Merida Art Gallery and Mendivil Family Wokshop. Both are located at the top of the steep hill, a nice reward after the ascent. If you have time, stop by the Coca Shop where the sacred coca leaf is transformed into decadent treats like brownies, bon bons, and tea.

Larco Mar In Lima, Peru
With upscale shopping and unparalleled views of the sea, Larco Mar is Lima’s Disneyland for commercial consumerism. In an open-air environment, the seaward breeze moves in and the Larco Mar dominates the seaside like a beacon calling in serious shoppers. All the usual suspects are here. Jewelers, name brand apparel makers, and even an iStore jockey for your Peruvian Soles. International movies are played in the cinema and a food court satisfies fast food cravings. High end restaurants cater to businesspersons and their retinue, while at the fountain middle-class skateboarders practice their curbside kicks. The scene is a cross section of wealth and fashion which even boasts a proper humidor bar where you can enjoy a Cuban cigar and a glass of your favorite distilled liquor. At night, grab a smoothie and stroll along the cliffside walkway to watch the lights of Lima reflect over the Pacific Ocean.
Souvenirs aside, shopping or window browsing is another way to see the true culture of a country. In Otavalo, Neil and I saw the commercial success of many indigenous peoples. In Lima, we saw the ultra-modern success of present-day Peruvians. Neither mall nor market is better than the other. They are different windows into modern day Andean culture. Where the former showcases reverence for the past and its traditions, the latter hints at the overall commercial success of its countries and the wealth of its people.

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