Before I set out on my journey to Latin America last July, I was armed with some vague ideas of how it would progress–i.e. where I would begin, which countries and cities I would visit, and what I wanted to get out of the experience. My “research” included utilizing such resources as my massive all-encompassing Lonely Planet guidebook, and of course the internet, but also largely the opinions I gathered from others I knew who’d made a similar journey before me (or had opinions on the matter anyway). Friends and family, whether or not they had been to Latin America, had plenty to say about each of my intended destinations.
At the time, I didn’t realize how much these opinions would shape the decisions I made along the way or my attitude when approaching an unfamiliar situation. I had more than one emotional breakdown prior to leaving for Venezuela, for instance, as a result of a few too many people expressing grave concern about my safety in a place almost none of them had ever been to (bear in mind the political situation at the time was much more stable than it is now); and while I agree that it’s healthy to enter a new situation with as much knowledge and awareness as possible, it’s NOT particularly healthy to fear something just because it’s unknown to us.
For that exact reason, I nearly missed out on a country that has since earned itself a very special place in my heart. I had every intention of skipping Ecuador altogether as a result of giving too much weight to the past experiences of others.
There were, of course, a handful of people who told me I’d be crazy not to go to Ecuador, but those overwhelmingly positive reviews aren’t the ones that stood out in my mind in hindsight (except when they were ALL positive, as was the case when I polled people about Bolivia). My valuable time was limited and when I was forced to seriously consider my options, I focused on the negative to help me make a decision–that one person I knew who was robbed on the beach, that other person who said they felt unsafe in Quito, etc.
It’s really an unfortunate habit of the human psyche to selectively recall negative things–we’d all be a lot happier if we could train our minds to do the opposite–and in this instance I couldn’t even seem to remember the girl who raved about Ecuador and was so insistent that I visit it that she sat down with me one night to give me a several-page list of places to go and things to see and even marked them all on my map, suggesting a logical route to travel and the timeframe I would need for everything. My mind just did not want to remember that, as the conflicting information would have made my decisions so. much. harder.
I still couldn’t make up my mind about Ecuador though, so I did what any responsible traveler would do and completely avoided thinking about it until I had a day or two left in Colombia and just let the circumstances do the deciding for me. I was sitting on my laptop, credit card at-the-ready to make an online flight purchase to Lima, Peru, when suddenly the prices and my credit card didn’t seem to agree with each other. My dejected credit card retreated to my wallet and I hopped on a bus to Quito, Ecuador the next day.
To make a long story moderately shorter, Ecuador blew me away from the very beginning. My first visit, albeit a hasty one (I think I spent a total of 10 days there before rushing to Peru for my Inca Trail reservation) smashed every pre-conceived idea I’d had about the country and gave me some of the best memories of my entire trip. It probably helped that I gained an incredible group of travel companions in Quito and found it surprisingly easy to make friends with locals, but the dramatic mountainous landscapes and beautiful beaches didn’t hurt either.
I ended the first chapter of my Latin American adventure with a second visit to Ecuador to see some friends and to give the country I completely underestimated a well-deserved second look.
I fully plan to continue soliciting travel advice and opinions from other seasoned travelers as I certainly still consider it to be valuable information, but I’ve learned to ALWAYS take it with a grain of salt. I would never want to sugar-coat any of my experiences, either–be warned that if you only want to hear good things about the places I’ve traveled, that simply will not be the case. And I’ll never give you an answer to the question of whether you should or should not travel to a particular place; that’s the decision you need to make for yourself.
So, should I ever ask you about your travel experiences or for your opinions on certain places in the future, please be honest and just know that I’m probably going to do whatever the hell I want anyway.