My wife, Deniz, and I sink deep into cushy, elegant reclining chairs at a spa in Papallacta, 40 miles east of Quito, Ecuador. Our rustic resort’s stone-and-wood decor is dimly lit by candles on cast-iron fixtures. Here above the cloud forests, where the air is invigorating but scant, faint soundscapes and a musky aroma entertain our senses. We look out at the misty mountains and then at each other. With a long sigh, we share a celebratory fist bump.
More than a romantic getaway, this is our prize for pulling off a four-week vacation. Without breaking the bank. And with toddlers — our daughter Aylin, 3, and son Emilio, 1 — in tow.
Until this trip, we’d vacationed in short, frantic, exhausting spurts. In other words, crappily. In this we were like many Americans, who do so because they are given 15 measly days off compared with Europeans’ 28, according to Expedia’s “Vacation Deprivation” survey from this year. And then we use up our few days off by checking work e-mail or running around like crazy people rushing to squeeze out every last drop of fun even if it kills us. Time-broke, tired and ticked off, we scurry home.
But a few months ago, something hit me. Somewhere between reckoning with turning 40, living the magic of parenthood, and reading Rolf Potts’s “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” I realized our family really needed to extend our travel. We needed to stop taking the kind of trips that leave you needing a vacation from your vacation. So we decided to splurge on the ultimate luxury, what Potts calls “our only real commodity”: time.
And as it turns out, even we — a family of four on a single income — could afford a little more time. What I didn’t expect was just how cathartic and liberating time could be for this husband and dad on the fast track to life’s halfway point.
The question for us was now: Where?
We originally thought big: We’d shoot for a two-month stint through Europe in a couple of years. But then our better parenting instincts took over: Maybe we do a trial run sooner but for a shorter period and to a cheaper destination? Maybe we go somewhere with the safety net of family and friends?
My parents’ native Ecuador fit the bill, so we staked out a four-week trip to the small South American country I grew up visiting and where my parents have a retirement home. We’d also have no shortage of other relatives willing to take us in. This would help offset our lodging, transportation and even occasional child-care costs.
Months before we set off, we scrambled to save money any way we could. We got a good deal on airline tickets by buying them early. Doing this also kept our eyes on the prize, keeping us disciplined with our finances and making it easier to put up with small sacrifices, such as not eating out. Because we’d be gone for nearly a month, we found we could get discounts for suspending cable and mobile-phone service as well as auto insurance. The savings added up and stacked up nicely against the affordable, family-friendly entertainment in Ecuador that we researched in advance.
We were ready to go.
We land in Quito — 9,350 feet above sea level — and spend a couple of days acclimating to the altitude at my parents’ house in nearby Valle de Los Chillos. Then we head north by car. Time buys flexibility, so we indulge in a detour and surprise Aylin and Emilio with a stop at the Quito Zoo in Guayllabamba.
At $4.50 per person, it’s a cheap way to see Ecuador’s most iconic animals, both in some danger of extinction: the giant Galapagos tortoise and the Andean condor. A zoo employee thoughtfully offers us a wheelchair to use as a stroller.
The tortoises greet us first. Weighing up to 550 pounds and living more than 100 years, they look like small, improbably ambulating mountains. Soon we reach the expansive condor holding area, where Kawsai and Auki — the resident condor couple, who have contributed several offspring to the species’ survival — step forward with the elegance of peacocks. With all cameras trained on them, they parade their 10- to 12-foot wingspan, seemingly aware of their celebrity status.
After three hours, Aylin and Emilio wave goodbye to the llamas, toucans and Andean spectacled bears. Happy but exhausted, they pass out in the car as we continue toward “La Ciudad Blanca” of Ibarra, so-called for its many whitewashed buildings. We lounge for a few days at my aunt’s house and board the recently renovated Tren de la Libertad, or Liberty Train. This 18.7-mile line began its run in 1917, so it’s like riding in a museum. The passenger car is impeccable: lacquered wood, polished brass, newly upholstered chairs.
The train descends slowly into the tropical Chota Valley, known for its bountiful sugarcane and soccer greats. We’re traveling along a mountain ledge barely wider than the track. Distracted with refilling sippy cups and tying shoelaces, I suddenly notice that we appear to be airborne, as the train glides from one mountain to another with nothing that I can see keeping us from taking the express to the afterlife.
I tuck Emilio safely under my arm like a 30-pound football and inch over to a window – which, in this antique train, slides right open — to see the Ambi River several hundred feet below. It’s not until the train begins turning into the first of several pitch-black tunnels that I can see the bridge we crossed. It’s spectacular and terrifying. At $20 a pop, the nearly two-hour trek is a cheaper ride than a day at Disney, but a whole lot more real. I marvel at just how thrilling and entertaining nature can be.
With nowhere we have to be in a hurry, we leave Ibarra and head languidly south along the arid Andean cordillera. Time also buys safety: We take it slow and don’t take unnecessary risks driving around serpentine, gravelly roads twisting on the edge of hundred-foot precipices.
Back in Los Chillos, Deniz and I drop off the little angels with my parents for our first date night. Noe Sushi Bar is a risky move in a country not known for sushi, in a city not by the sea. But once we set foot inside, the posh Japanese decor exudes attention to detail and gives us confidence.
Later, owner and executive chef Noé Carmona explains the restaurant’s elaborate quality assurance program and says he is personally involved in ensuring seafood arrives to his kitchens in “perfect condition.”
That’s apparent when we embark on our $45 gastronomical adventure. Our favorite on the hearty, artistically presented bonsai sunakku platter is the “by fay tu” — a flaky wonton shell filled with octopus sauteed in olive oil, soy sauce and ginger, topped with caviar and a sesame sauce, and all baked to crispy, golden, Ecuadorian-Japanese-fusion perfection.
We take a lazy Sunday in the community play area adjacent to my parents’ house, giving Aylin and Emilio a chance to soak in the sun and frolic with cousins. The next morning we sleep in before loading up for our next car trip. This time our destination is three hours south — Baños de Agua Santa, or Baths of Holy Water, in the Amazon River basin.
Baños sits at the base of the Tungurahua, which in the Quechua language means “throat of fire” — appropriate for a volcano with 10 confirmed eruptions since the city was founded in the 1500s. It’s been coughing up ash and spewing lava regularly since October 1999, yet the city somehow seems unscathed. A tour guide explains that the crater points away from Baños, and surrounding canyons have protected the city from lava much like a moat protects a castle.
But we have a problem: Aylin, who is asthmatic, has developed a bad cold. Two years earlier, asthma and the altitude led to a dangerous bout with pneumonia, so we’re taking no chances. We run her to a pediatrician, who gives strict orders to keep her indoors to protect her from the wind and the 20-degree temperature swings, common in high-elevation areas.
Baños isn’t exactly an indoorsy place — famed for its towering waterfalls, steep canyons and fast rapids, it’s a destination for bungee jumping, ziplining and rafting. Because we have prepaid for a three-day stay at the Hosteria Monte Selva, we’re in a dilemma. But we decide to truck on: As long as we keep Aylin indoors, does it matter where we are?
When she’d had pneumonia, Deniz and I clung to her bedside with well-intended concern that didn’t really help anyone: We were all miserable. This time we’re smarter — we take turns. And when I’m on duty, I close the curtains to protect her from the fun she’s missing. Unfazed, she turns our cabin into her playroom and me into her biggest toy.
It’s Aylin who ends up distracting me from what I’m missing. She teaches me that having fun is a state of mind, not a location. And because we have time to spare, I realize there are far worse tragedies than spending a couple of vacation days cooped up in paradise with a pretty awesome 3-year-old. We have a blast.
Under my graying mop of hair, I feel marginally wiser and not just plain older.
At $67 per night for a double cabin, the Monte Selva is a steal, even if a little dilapidated. We use the sauna, steam room, and mineral-rich volcanic thermal pool.
My parents, whom we’re treating to this little slice of almost-heaven, watch the kids one evening, giving us the chance to take a two-hour nighttime tour of Baños on a double decker, open-air bus for $4 per person. We drive past the iconic blue-lit basilica in the city center on our way up to the Bellavista lookout point, where we get a bird’s-eye view of Baños glittering in its valley. To warm us up, we are each served canelazo — a hot, citrusy, cinnamon drink with a splash of grain alcohol.
After two days, Aylin has fully recovered. We pay $6 per person and take the same bus on a daytime ride to Baños’ main attraction, the waterfalls.
We return to Los Chillos again and sneak a triple-date night with cousins. This time it’s on Casa 1028 — a 22-passenger luxury bus that meanders through colonial Quito at night. We’re served three rounds of Ecuadorian hors d’oeuvres in dinnerware that fits into cutouts on our restaurant-style tables so we don’t end up wearing our food.
During the two-hour ride, the bus makes several stops. Waitstaff pop out of nowhere and pour us a few canelazos as we admire the Plaza de San Francisco. Off in the distance, perched on El Panecillo hill, the statue of the Virgin of Quito watches over her sleeping city.
A few days before returning home, Deniz and I — somewhat reluctantly — leave Aylin and Emilio with my parents and drive to Papallacta. The two-hour trip through dramatic scenery and increasingly colder microclimates takes our breath away figuratively and literally; at 10,824 feet above sea level, we are winded. But this confirms we did the right thing with the kids and excises our lingering guilt.
The Termas de Papallacta resort offers high-caliber pampering for $185 a night in a swanky but tasteful cabin with a hot tub. The resort’s restaurant fulfills our craving for grilled trout and empanadas de morocho — paper-thin, crispy dough wrapped around fine ground beef and rice. They melt in our mouths.
The spa’s comfort and ambiance are among the best we’ve experienced anywhere. We spend $15 apiece to get 20 minutes of “chorro therapy” — a high-pressure spraydown that is part massage, part acupuncture. Late into the blissful night, we soak in the thermal pools — heated to about 100 degrees by the nearby Antisana and Cayambe volcanoes.
This was the splurge that capped our trip. Although I had visited Ecuador many times, this high-end spa — like the perfectly working antique train and the world-class cuisine — came as a revelation. The country seems to be breaking free of third-world shackles with first-world ambitions. But I wonder how much of my awed sensations were simply the consequence of slowing down to enjoy it all. Maybe a bit of both.
On the surface, we have coined a new family maxim: If we can be a little resourceful, we can enjoy extraordinary travel. This trip primed us for taking on Europe next summer — where, like most people, we won’t have such a sweet family hook-up. So we’re mapping places where we may have friends or connections who can help us avoid the tourist traps and give us affordable recommendations.
But Ecuador did something more for us. We discovered that time is not a matter of quality over quantity: You need quantity to have quality. And by making time our most prized luxury, not only did we savor our travel, our food and our experiences in ways we couldn’t have imagined otherwise, I discovered the most likable version of me — a guy capable of having fun while stuck in a room with his sick child. As parents, we want what’s best for our kids, so I want this guy to be the one my kids call Daddy. That’s a pretty sweet epiphany at 40. Call it a midlife miracle.
More from Travel:
Hosteria Monte Selva Resort
Thomas Halflants S/N, Baños
Affordable hotel in city center with plenty of amenities, including a pool with volcano-heated-spring water, rich in minerals. Rooms start at $39 for single occupancy.
Termas de Papallacta Spa Resort
Km. 65 via Quito-Baeza, Papallacta
Luxury resort high above the rain clouds with natural thermal pools immediately outside rustic log cabins. Rooms start at $90, online promotional cabins with fireplace or whirlpool bath for $120.
Noe Sushi Bar
San Luis Shopping, San Rafael
High-end, Ecuadorean-Japanese fusion sushi chain with 12 locations throughout Ecuador; must try exquisite “by fay tu.” California roll starts at $8 with fancier rolls about $12 to $15.
Casa 1028 Mobile Restaurant
Enrique Gangotena N26-78 (Entre Avenida Orellana y Santa Maria), Quito
Three rounds of heavy, authentic Ecuadorian hors d’oeuvres are served on a luxury 22-passenger bus while you tour through colonial Quito at night. $45 per person.
Avenida Eugenio Espejo y Cristobal Colon, Ibarra
Renovated antique sightseeing trains with various routes. “Tren de La Libertad” route runs Wednesday through Sunday; departs at 10:30 a.m. and returns at 4:30 p.m. $20, children younger than 3 ride free. Check Web site for other route schedules and prices.
Huertos Familiares S/N, Guayllabamba
011-593-2-236-8898 or 011-593-9-9804-6563
The national zoo hosts animals indigenous to the region, including condors and Andean spectacled bears; Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays; $3 per child, $4.50 per adult, children younger than 3 free.
Chebas night and
Calle Ambato y Pasaje Artesanal, Baños
Small double-decker, open-air bus conducts various tours at various times and various locations, including a two-hour ride up a mountain at night and a longer, six-hour waterfall tour during the day. Night tour $4, waterfall tour $6.