Experiments in Serendipitous Travel on an Ecuador Road Trip
On our three week road trip through Ecuador, we experimented with an older style of travel: foregoing advanced booking and making it up as we went.
How did people ever travel before online booking?
Search filters, maps and photos are superpowers, arming us with an omniscient gaze. This is especially useful for a family of five that must find lodging with a minimum amount of bedding, prefers a kitchen and a washing machine, sometimes free parking, definitely WiFi. Extra points for free breakfast and a swimming pool. Oh, and we want all that for $50 per night or less (not unreasonable in South America), but would rather the place not look like a slum. Modern booking sites quickly identify and narrow down options.
And that’s not all. Travel websites and blogs (like our own) purport to list the “10 Best… trails, beaches, waterfalls, kid-friendly activities, etc.,” so we don’t have to tramp around all the second-rate junk. Modern digital mapping allows us to time our routes, find attractions, and “visit” a place through photos and reviews from the comfort of our couch. And, of course, we can reserve everything ahead of time without picking up the phone or showing up at a physical office.
The internet provides an irresistible portal to our travel destinations, so that we need not leave anything to chance.
Leaving Room For Serendipity
But are there downsides to all this advanced research and planning? We suspected there were and we decided to find out.
For three weeks in Ecuador we rented a car, drove wherever we wanted, and rarely planned beyond the next day. This was an experiment. What would happen if we set aside our internet superpowers and let the forces of chance, fate, personal encounters, and spontaneous desires light our path?
There was some anxiety. What if we found ourselves without a place to sleep? What if we missed out on the best experiences? Would it be unnerving not to know where you were going to be in three days? But after almost eleven months traveling, we knew we could hack it.
Some Advanced Planning (Not Cheating at All)
Despite our intention to wing it, we outlined a potential route and pinned some possible destinations on a map prior to our trip. I sent it to my work friend, David, who grew up in Ecuador. It seemed prudent to verify that the roads were navigable by car and we wouldn’t wander into a conflict zone.
David assured me that we would have a great time. He proceeded to write a long and detailed email (which I published on the blog) about all the places we intended to visit. We memorized it like scripture and quoted it often. For example, we made one quote into a call and response. Any time we waded into a river in the Amazon region, one family member would say, “Refreshment guaranteed!” and another would follow with, “Water quality not guaranteed!” (Our family has so many inside jokes after hanging around each other constantly for a year that we fear no one will understand us when we return home.)
Though we plotted a course and had some idea of what there was to see, we were still free to go off script.
Going Off Script
The advantage of having no set plan became apparent two days before we started our road trip. I sat in the front seat of the taxi that took us from Rio Lindo Coffee Farm to a town where we could take a bus back to the big city. The narrow unpaved mountain road was bumpy and slow, affording us plenty of time to chat.
I told the taxi driver about our plans to drive through the three regions of Ecuador (Coast, Sierra, and Amazon jungle). She had plenty of opinions about the three regions. Of course, she had good things to say about her own home in the Sierra. But she also gushed about the Amazon (known as the Oriente), the exotic fruits you could find there, and the natural beauty on offer.
The coast was another matter. She didn’t trust people from the coast and warned that some parts were dangerous. The only good thing she had to say about the coast was the food.
As we sat on the curb in the little town of Apuela, waiting for our bus, I suggested to Liuan that we reverse our route and visit the Amazon first. Having no reservations to cancel, we spontaneously reimagined our entire route.
Challenge: Find Lodging Without the Internet
For the first week, we found our lodging using Booking.com. To our surprise, we had no trouble finding rooms that met our requirements, even up to the day before.
Then we decided to raise the stakes on this experiment. On day seven, we left in the morning with a short two hour drive without knowing where we would stay the night. Super scary!
Actually, it was super chill. We didn’t waste the usual hour or more on a computer screen filtering, scrolling, “hearting,” eliminating options and agonizing over the pros and cons of our favorites to arrive at a thoroughly vetted final choice.
Instead, we set our destination to a chocolate farm just south of Puyo that we had planned to visit in the afternoon. As we drove we kept our eyes open for hospedaje. The city of Puyo itself wasn’t that attractive and we decided not to stop there. But the more distance we put between us and the city, the more enchanting our surroundings became. Even the road seemed out of a fairy tail — it was an ungraded strip of pavement that perfectly followed the contours of the rolling hills, like following the yellow brick road to Oz.
We spotted our first lead, a sign reading hospedaje, and followed the gravel road into the woods. The property was gorgeous, walled in by forest with a burbling brook running through it. But the rooms were extremally rustic and lacked WiFi. It was very cheap. We said maybe we would come back.
Not more than a mile down the road we found another place. This one had WiFi and a small, but clean and attractive, family room. It also had free breakfast and a shared space with kids’ toys and games. Total price: $55. Incredible. We just stumbled into perfection on the second try.
Why We Resumed Booking Online
Maybe it was beginners’ luck. We decided to try it again the next day.
This time our destination was Baños, a tourist mecca of sorts. A half hour before we entered the city limits, we passed one activity after another: zip-lining, cable cars, rafting, hiking trails, and all kinds of gimmicky extreme sports.
When we entered Baños proper, we didn’t know where to begin looking for a hotel. There were too many options. But we had an ace up our sleeve. The people that owned the hostel we had just left also had one in Baños. We quickly decided to quit wandering those cluttered streets and head to the place we knew.
After that we resumed booking online. An additional downside of street searching is you rule out Airbnbs, which are more likely to meet the needs of a family.
Smoother Without a Plan
Even so, we continued to only plan a day or two in advance. We found this to be a great advantage at various points along the way. Here are but a few examples:
- Our hotel on the Napo River in the Amazon offered a downriver excursion with an overnight stay in the jungle. Though we hadn’t planned to stay that long, this sounded awesome! We weren’t aware of this option until we arrived, but we had nothing nailed down in the future, so the decision was easy. Coming back from the excursion by bus took much longer than anticipated. Again, no stress. We just asked to stay another night in the hotel on the Napo instead of continuing on as we had originally planned.
- A week into the trip, Liuan suddenly decided she really wanted to go to Cuenca. Initially, it wasn’t part of the route due to the fact that our car rental contract included a mileage limit and Cuenca is quite far to the south. But then we could compensate by eliminating some potential destinations on the coast. All this came together as we talked to people and synthesized their takes with our own preferences. No future bookings hindered us from refining our route.
- On our way to Cuenca, we were detoured due to a mudslide that had left a yawning gap in the main highway. We were rerouted high up into the mountains on roads that few international travelers have likely ever seen. It was one of the most sublime and invigorating days of our trip. And to think we had pegged that day to be nothing but a long boring drive.
- In Puerto Lopez, we intended to take a tour of Isla de la Plata, often referred to as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos.” The day we went to scout out a tour agency I parked on a street by the beach. A guy approached me before I had even closed the car doors and asked if we planned to take the tour. We followed him to his tour agency and booked for the next day at a cost of $180 for the family. It seemed like a good price, but later I checked online to see if we had gotten a fair deal. The price on TripAdvisor for the same exact tour: $458.35. So much for booking ahead.
- As we were driving to Puerto Lopez, we drove past Puerto Cayo and noticed it looked really peaceful and nice. I said, “You know what, we should stay in Puerto Cayo on the way back.” There was nothing stopping us, so we did. It was lovely.
Does This Change the Way We’ll Travel?
Hopefully I’ve made it clear that, far from creating problems or stress, lacking a plan actually made it easier to roll with the unexpected. Flexibility turned many fateful twists into opportunities rather than spoilers.
While the internet may appear, and even claim, to provide comprehensive knowledge, the reality is much less impressive. Case in point: the most beautiful place we witnessed in Ecuador, the detour through the mountains enroute to Cuenca, is certainly on nobody’s “10 Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Ecuador” blog post. It’s not like someone literally goes around trying every possibility. They do some research, probably on the internet, and then write about their experiences if they were good. What we found is that there are so many more gems to discover!
So naturally you may be wondering if this marks a change in the way we’ll travel in the future.
Well, not so fast. What if it was peak season in Puerto Lopez and Isla de la Plata was on our bucket list? How would it feel to travel all that way only to find out the tours were all sold out? Framed that way, maybe we would have been happy to pay the $458 to secure our slot. Traveling as long as we have made it easier to stomach the possibility of missing out. In this case, holding our future plans with an open hand saved us almost $300.
Moreover, the results might be different depending on where (and when) you travel. South America seems especially favorable for travelers flying by the seat of their pants. Everyone is geared up to receive last minute sign-ups, as that is the expectation. Nevertheless, other countries or regions may operate differently and it’s hard to know that in advance if you’ve never been there.
We’ve been burned in the past by not booking ahead. Our experience backpacking in Western China illustrates both the benefits and drawbacks of winging it. Traveling with three little boys makes the potential for hardships or dashed expectations even more unappealing.
So, as practical matter, we’ll probably book our transportation and Airbnbs on future trips, though we might think twice before booking tours on TripAdvisor. At any rate, for those once-a-year vacations, planning is half the fun.
But I can imagine a day, when it’s just me and Liuan semi-retired, traveling months at a time in our electric camper van, when we may opt for this more easy-breezy style of travel.