I’m just another backpacker—or mochilero as we’re called in South America—on my way down the continent. My route is not the conventional backpacker route. Most stick to the more heavily traveled Pan American Highway at least through Lima, but I had read about the supposed magical waters that flowed through the valley of the Gods and had to experience it for myself. More importantly, I had a cousin working as a chef in a new five star hotel in Loja so I decided to make a stop in the little city near the southern border of Ecuador. After two months of living in hostels, where having untorn mosquito nets around the bed is the most important factor in choosing a room, a nice few nights in a classy hotel didn’t sound too bad.
Before I checked in, I spotted a tourist office nearby where I found an agent. I was looking to book a day tour to Podocarpus National Park a few miles to the east.
“Of course we do tours to Podocarpus.” He showed me a picture of the jeep I would take to go from Loja to the park entrance.
“Great!” I said. “What time to we leave?”
“Can you come back later this afternoon? I have to check with our other offices to see how many people we have going.”
“How much is it going to be?”
“One hundred fifty.”
“Do I pay now?”
“No. You can do that later when you come back.”
I did the walking tour of historic Loja, which was easy enough. A bright red line had been painted on the sidewalk to guide the tour. Great care had been taken to accommodate tourists—it’s just that…there weren’t any tourists.
I returned to the tourist office where the agent’s face was planted on his desk and his fingers entrenched in his hair. I startled him awake when I walked through the door.
“Do we know what time we leave?” I asked.
His eyes were bloodshot and his fingers crawled over his hair to the back of his neck, tugging forcibly at the skin along the way. “I am sorry,” he said. “We don’t have the minimum number of passengers to have a tour.”
“How many more do we need?”
That was encouraging. “Oh, good! So we only need one more. How many do we have right now?”
“Just one.” His fingers were now pulling his cheeks, stretching his eyelids to where he looked like a tortured character in a Goya painting.
He nodded. “Come back in two hours. Maybe we’ll have some luck.”
At the hotel, the doorman excitedly opened the door for me. The maître d’ of the restaurant greeted me. The receptionist smiled warmly. With her fair skin and green eyes, she didn’t look Ecuadorian, but when I pressed her about her heritage, she insisted that every ancestor as far back as her family remembered was from Ecuador.
I unloaded my bags in the room and asked the bellhop how to operate the safe. He demonstrated the procedure to operate the safe. “The combination is 3-6-1,” he said proudly.
So much for security. Well, I decided, if someone really wanted my stuff they could just as easily walk out with the entire safe, which wasn’t bolted into anything. I tried the computer and the free wireless, but the signal faded in and out, and I couldn’t really do anything. The signal was stronger down the hall, so I went back down to the lobby and asked the green-eyed receptionist if I could get another room.
“Sure. Which one would you like?”
“What’s available?” I asked.
“All of them.”
I was stunned. “I’m the only guest?”
My VIP treatment made sense. Not wanting to put the staff through so much trouble on account of one needy guest, I decided to keep my original room.
When I returned to the travel agency, the agent was already locking up the shop. It was only 4 o’clock. “Did you find anyone?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I had thought about inviting the cute receptionist to come with me, but when I mentioned I was planning a trip to Podocarpus, she’d responded by saying, “I hate the outdoors.”
“So what do I do?” I asked the agent.
He came closer to me and said, “Look, you can take a bus to Zamora. From there you can follow the road to the park on foot. It’s only five kilometers. Or you can take a taxi. The trails in the park are clearly marked. You really don’t need a tour.”
“Really.” He shook my hand. “Have a good time.”
So I took the bus to Zamora.