Street Art Brings Color To Ecuador (GALLERY)

New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Melbourne are just a few of the cities known for street art. But that doesn’t mean the streets aren’t being spray painted, wheat pasted and stenciled in other cities – and more importantly, it doesn’t lessen the messages these artists are trying to get across. One such place is Ecuador, where graffiti tells the stories of the state of life and what it’s like to live in the country. Locals in the country’s capital city have a saying that there are “no blank walls in Quito,” and for the most part that’s true. Even in those instances where there is a blank wall, it probably won’t be long before it turns into a canvas. Click through the image gallery below to see a collection of street art images from across Ecuador (including some from Baños de Agua Santa, where Jessica Festa recently documented graffiti). Whether you consider street art a nice artistic touch or an act of vandalism, these images show a unique perspective.

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How To Avoid Looking Like A Tourist

Blending in to a city or country you’re visiting has many advantages. Among them, allowing yourself to have a more immersive experience and not falling victim to a robbery scheme involving human feces. Some cities come with their own code of conduct, such as Washington DC, where during Gadling’s recent summit we noticed anyone who stands on the left side of an escalator is immediately met with a barrage of furrowed brows and choice words. The tips below, however, can help keep you from being branded as an out-of-towner in any city the world over. Take these pointers in stride and the day will come when tourists ask you for directions while you’re out on adventures.

Be Discreet About Using Maps & Guidebooks
Let’s face it: We all get lost, even in cities we’re familiar with. But if you carry around a guidebook or unfold a large map in public, you might as well wear a neon sign flashing “tourist” over your head. That doesn’t mean you should travel sans map, but it does help to step out of foot traffic or even into a store or cafe when you need to regroup and figure out where you are.
If you do need to use a guidebook, try to unfold it so the cover isn’t visible or hold it in a (preferably local) newspaper or magazine. Another idea is to check and see if mobile guides are available, that way no one will suspect you are reading a guide as you scroll through your phone. Besides, in the age of smartphones and GPS technology, it’s easy to get around by discreetly consulting a map on your phone – just be aware of your surroundings and don’t pull out your fancy phone in a place where it could be an easy target for a robbery.

When riding public transportation, take note that the locals often use maps – but they tend to stick to the ones posted in subway and bus stations. Studying a map beforehand in your hotel or on a plane is one easy way to get acquainted with a new location that will end up saving you time (and causing you less stress) in the end.

Follow the Area “Dress Code”
One simple way to blend in is to camouflage yourself in the local mode of dress. Europeans tend to wear dark, neutral tones – but the opposite is true in the Caribbean and India where vivid colors are found everywhere. As a visitor you’ll blend in by wearing these colors, too.

Dressing for the local weather is also important. Forgetting to pack a raincoat in Seattle will surely brand you as out of touch with the local weather, as will running around in a sundress in San Francisco in February (no matter how mild it feels!). Abroad, many Americans tend to wear outdoor gear intended for hiking, skiing or similar pursuits, but these articles of clothing are uncommon in most countries. Even in cold places, the rest of the world tends to wear more formal attire, such as wool or leather coats.

In addition to outerwear, there are many stereotypically American articles of clothing travelers should avoid when going abroad. This includes sneakers, Crocs, baseball hats, cargo pants and shorts, but can also be expanded to clothes featuring the United States flag or U.S. brand names such as Abercrombie and Gap. These brands are gaining popularity across the world, but again, anything that brands you as a tourist should be avoided if you want to travel incognito. Travelers should also avoid wearing flashy or expensive jewelry, as its never a good idea to attract too much attention.

And by the way, fanny packs are not acceptable anywhere and are largely considered the ultimate fashion faux pas for tourists. Sandals with socks are a close second.

Try to Speak the Language
One of my nightmare travel partners was a person who assumed everyone in Europe knew English. She would begin speaking in her native tongue to concierges, shopkeepers, servers and anyone else she came in contact with, and when they gave her confused looks she would only repeat her question louder and slower. Sure, it can be embarrassing to put yourself out there, but making an effort to speak the local language is a huge sign of respect. Besides learning a few basic words (the translations for “please” and “thank you”) will go a long way. Be sure you know how to say, “do you speak English?” in any country you visit. It’s a great conversation starter for tourists.

Along the same lines, the less English you speak while out and about the more you’ll be able to travel under the radar. That’s not to say you and your travel partners should play “the silent game” while abroad, but it’s something to take into consideration. A great example is when taking a taxi in a foreign country. If you’re able to say “hello,” give directions and make small talk in the driver’s language and then make it through the rest of the ride without speaking English to your cohorts, the driver may never have a clue you’re from out of town. He or she will be less likely to scam you or take you into dangerous territory.

Take Things Down a Notch
All around the world, Americans are known for being louder than is customary in most countries. This includes using loud voices in public places – especially while talking on cellphones. Americans also have the tendency to use exaggerated arm and hand movements. Avoid making the wrong impression and sticking out by reminding yourself to be a little more reserved.

Resist the Urge to Photograph Everything
It’s easy to get snap happy abroad. With the discovery of new places and experiences comes the desire to capture these special moments (and bring a little photographic evidence back home). But how many times have you returned from a trip and looked through your pictures only to find you can pick out a handful of photos that represent your entire vacation? And how many times have those pictures been of the inside or a church or of a landmark that has already been the backdrop to thousands of tourist photos? It’s something to take into consideration before your next trip.

Living a little less through the lens of a camera will drastically help downplay your tourist factor. Unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s probably little reason you need to have a camera draped around your neck at all times. Camera-toting tourists are an easy target for theft because not only are they showing off expensive equipment, but they are also distracted from their surroundings. Believe me on this one, because I once nearly fell victim to a robbery while living in Quito, Ecuador. I still take lots of pictures in my travels, but I make sure to be discreet when doing so and always tuck my camera safely away when it’s not in use.

Research Local Manners
Knowing whether or not simple gestures such as a handshake are customary or which hand to hold a fork in is crucial to blending in abroad. Giving the “okay” gesture will land you in trouble in Brazil (it’s similar to flipping someone off in the United States), while not knowing how to correctly hold chopsticks in China will be a dead giveaway that you’re new in town. Knowing whether or not to tip is also very important, especially because in some countries (namely Korea and Japan) it can be considered an insult to leave one. Before you go, spend some time looking into local manners and etiquette. It doesn’t take much time, and you’ll be a much more considerate traveler after doing your research.

Stay Alert and Be Confident
Of all these tips, the golden rule for fitting in with the locals is to stay alert and be confident. Looking and acting the part with confidence will get you much further than you think. If you can do that while staying aware of your surroundings, you should have a much easier time mastering how to look like a local.

To truly blend in, become observant. If you don’t know how to do something such as swiping your Metrocard in New York, instead of fumbling at it and causing a bottleneck, take a moment to step to the side and observe how to go through the turnstile. Along the same lines, if you haven’t seen anyone walking down the street and drinking coffee in Rome, don’t be surprised to find most places don’t have a to-go option. In the same vein, if you’re lost in an unfamiliar place, at least try to look like you know where you’re going and nobody will suspect you of not knowing your way around town.

Of course, these are only suggestions. Becoming invisible as a traveler is difficult and the skill takes a long time to master. Don’t let the act of “trying to fit in” ruin your trip, and by all means don’t feel ashamed of where you come from.

[Photos (top to bottom) by Ed Yourdon / Flickr, istolthetv / Flickr, and sidewalk flying / Flickr]

Vagabond Tales: How to Survive a Coup On Your Honeymoon, Part 1

Bus in Quito Ecuador during Sept 30 coup

With the radio crackling from the speakers of his rusty old cargo van, Juan’s furrowed brow indicated a greater focus on the newscast than on shuttling us to Pululahua Crater.

My wife and I being the only two passengers on his 11am tour, Juan had begun to speak to us as friends, not customers.

“I am very scared for Ecuador” he confessed. “I am sorry you must be here for this.”

Through a combination of the semi-blown speakers and my once-fluent Spanish not at it’s sharpest, I wasn’t able to pick up from the radio broadcast what had suddenly made Juan so sullen and concerned.

I imagined, however, that the crowd of chanting people we had seen when leaving Quito earlier that morning must have had something to do with it.

The second indicator that things were amiss was the way in which all of the taxi drivers once we had returned from Pululahua Crater were refusing to give us rides back into Quito.

Está demasiado peligroso” they all would claim. “It’s too dangerous.”

In talking with Juan I had learned that President Rafael Correa had announced a plan to cut the bonuses awarded to the National Police. This, as you might imagine, did not sit well with the National Police. In response to the removal of their bonuses the National Police opted to walk off of their job and instead engage in a raucous strike. Due to this collective decision, for the entire day of September 30, 2010, there were no policemen in the entire country of Ecuador.

Having only arrived in the country the evening before, this was, as fate would have it, the first day of our honeymoon.Having spent the morning straddling the Equator at “La Mitad del Mundo“, a have-to-do-it type of tourist trap just north of the capital city, we were now apparently stuck in the outskirts of Quito with no one willing to drive us back into town.

“You can try and take that bus over there”, offered one of the timid taxi-drivers. “It’s leaving in ten minutes and going downtown.”

Going into this trip I was aware that Ecuador had gone through seven Presidents in the preceding 13 years, a statistic indicative of its political volatility. Revolts and strikes are common in Ecuador, I thought, so why should this one be any different?

Little did I know that our afternoon bus was about to drive straight into the heart of the uprising.

Apparently, while my wife and I were taking obligatory pictures of the Equator and hanging with Juan in mists of Pululahua, thousands of protestors had meanwhile gathered in the streets of downtown Quito. In response to the absence of a police force and in an effort to stem looting, Correa had activated the military to be helicoptered in from jungle outposts in order to patrol the streets and keep order.

The police, it seemed, were now in a stand off with the military, which might just rank as the most heavily armed intra-government squabble possible. Military helicopters circled overhead, tens of thousands of people chanted in the streets, and chaos was brewing and percolating fast.

The international airport had been taken over by the military, the border crossings were completely sealed off, and the entire country was suddenly put on lockdown. Trapped inside of Ecuador, I still had little idea of what was about to happen.

Making an appearance outside of a downtown police hospital, President Correa addressed the rowdy crowd of rioters with a speech which can be classified as anything but diplomatic. Though I wasn’t quite close enough to hear the words in person, here is a verbatim quotation of what Correa decided to say:

“I’m not taking one step back! Gentleman, if you want to kill the president, here he is, kill him if you have the guts.”

Taking Correa up on his offer, police responded by firing tear gas canisters at Correa’s chest, attempted to rip off his gas mask, and then proceeded to hold him hostage inside of the hospital by blockading all of the entries and exists. A coup d’etat, it appeared, was slowly beginning to take place.

Guarded by loyal security forces yet trapped nonetheless, President Correa issued a national state of emergency. The situation, it would appear, was not going the way he had planned.

In a bold rescue mission staged by the Ecuadorian military, however, elite special forces soon engaged the police in a firefight which would ultimately whisk Correa away to safety.

Meanwhile, in a poorly timed sequence of events, not five minutes earlier my wife and I had been forced to depart from the bus due to a massive road closure. Essentially stopping in the middle of the freeway, the driver impatiently opened both sets of doors and mandated that this was far as he could take us. Not knowing where we were or which direction our hostel was located, we instinctively began to follow the crowds.

Strolling down the streets of Quito with my new bride by my side, rumors continued to circulate as to what exactly was happening in the city.

“What’s everyone saying?” asked my wife with a tremble in her voice, her level of Spanish not quite having reached “eavesdrop on an uprising” level.

“Umm, they’re talking about a big crowd, and they are saying there are men with rockets.”

“Rockets?”

“Yeah, well, tear gas. There are men firing rockets of tear gas. And something happened to the President.”

“The President! Where is this all happenning?” she quickly asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far.”

Like cattle in a herd we followed the crowd. My plan was to hail a taxi and somehow find our way to our hostel across town. Amidst the road closures and the level of uncertainty, however, no taxis were anywhere to be found.

Then, like firecrackers popping on New Year’s Eve the sound of gunfire began to slowly pepper the sky. Apparently, completely unbenkownst to us we had walked to within a couple hundred yards of the same hospital where Correa was taken hostage.

Guns clammered and reverberated against the hillside. The whir of helicopters thumped overhead. All around us the stench of burning tires wafted malodorously on the breeze. Women screamed and the crowd began to rush towards us. Shocked that it had actually come to this, it was starting to become apparent that people were going to die…

Does Kyle live to survive the coup? Find out in the next installment of Vagabond Tales

For more photos of the September 30, 2010 coup, check out this photo album from the BBC.

Money in Ecuador: How far can $1 get you?

Ecuador is one place where a little money really does go a long way. Not only does the country use United States currency, but it’s amazing how many things you can purchase for just one dollar. Whether you are looking to drink an oversized beer at a pub or feast on 20 fresh bananas (just try to scarf them all down before they turn brown!), it comes as no surprise that Ecuador repeatedly makes the list of budget-friendly places to visit–as well as our top picks for adventure destinations in 2012.

Start the day with a cup of coffee–or four. Most cafes will give you your caffeine fix for 25 to 35 cents a cup. Just don’t be prepared to get Starbucks-style java: in Ecuador, coffee is usually a cup of hot water with some instant coffee served on the side for you to stir in. If that’s not up your alley, you can get a large party-sized cup of made-to-order juice for just a dollar at a fruterias, or fruit shop. They let you choose any mix of fruit of vegetables your heart desires, and no sugar or water will be added. Don’t be afraid to try a fruit you’ve never seen or heard of before, either: I tried guanábana, maracuya, naranjilla and tomate de arbol while I was there, and still find myself craving them all. On the other hand, if you simply prefer soda or bottled water, it’s also sold at a reasonable price: 30 to 60 cents depending on the size. Most of it comes in glass bottles, too-a fun game to play is to see how long your bottle has been in circulation; my record was a bottle that dated back to 1994.Being introduced to new flavors and climates doesn’t always agree with out bodies, but in Ecuador it’s no bother. If you are having altitude sickness, a stomachache, or a mild allergic reaction, just drop by a pharmacy where there is no need to buy a whole box of medicine-pills are sold individually and they’re usually cheap. Buy what you need, and if you don’t feel better the next day just come back for more. You can also buy a lot of medicines you would need a prescription for in the U.S.-but that’s a whole different story.

Getting around in Ecuador is cheap, too. A taxi will take you up to a mile for just a dollar, while the city bus will take you anywhere around major cities like Quito and Guayaquil for just 25 cents. Buses run all over the country, and as a general rule the cost is $1 per hour-making the uncomfortable 10-hour bus ride from Quito to the coast totally worth it.

As for food, you might not be able to get a complete dinner for a dollar–but choclo con queso, or corn on the cob served with a chunk of cheese, will hold you over for awhile. Some more familiar menu options for just a buck include pizza, fruit cups, and foot-long hot dogs, which are sold in parks and on streets from vendors. Just keep in mind that hot dogs are served with some unfamiliar options like mayonnaise, tomatoes, and crushed potato chips.

Drinking in Ecuador might be one of the best deals to be had. A large bottle of beer is just a dollar at many pubs, and if you search hard enough you might be able to find mixed drinks like cuba libres and rum and coke for the same price. Don’t leave the country without trying a canelazo, a traditional drink made with fruit juice and sugar can alcohol, served hot. And if you smoke when you drink, you can get a cute half-pack of ten cigarettes for just a dollar.

When it comes to souvenirs, a dollar can get you a few things. At Quito’s Mercado Artesenal, handmade bracelets, earrings, coin purses, and finger puppets can be picked up for a dollar or less. Take a short bus ride to the famous Otovalo Market, the biggest bazaar in all of South America, and you can get even better deals.

Although the deals sound great, take my advice: if you plan on visiting bring a roll of quarters and the smallest bills you can imagine. Nobody in this country seems to have change, and very often convenience stores would rather refuse selling you anything than change a $10 bill. The horror stores of cab drivers chastising people for using “enormous bills” when trying to pay a $3 cab far with a $5 bill are true-and if you find yourself with a $20 bill, be prepared to have a panic attack.

[Photos by Libby Zay and Andres Felipe Mena]