Author Archives: Jena Davison

Send in Photos of You with Your VIVA Guidebook for a Free eBook Version!

Hi VIVA Readers and Followers!

We absolutely love receiving your photos with our books, so keep them coming! Starting with the most recent edition of our Colombia book, we have urged loyal VIVA guidebook owners to send in photos of themselves with the hard copy of their books in order to receive a free eBook version of the edition, updated for life! You can download this eBook on whichever travel companion you may have: a smart phone, kindle, nook or notebook computer for quick access on the road.

Our website is also constantly being updated, so our guidebooks are being virtually updated often as well; be sure to check back often for travel tips, hotel and restaurant suggestions, and newly spotted activities and volunteer opportunities all over Latin America. Of course, we also hope you will continue to send in your feedback to help keep VIVA guidebooks accurate, up-to-date and user-friendly.

We are now inviting all members of the VIVA Travel Guides community to send in photos of themselves with a hard copy of their VIVA guidebook for access to the eBook version—free of charge and updated for life! Whether you have taken our Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Quito, Cusco and Machu Picchu, Galápagos, Nicaragua or Guatemala guide on the road, we want to see your faces and hear your feedback.

Thanks a million to those of you who have already participated, from all corners of the globe! Here are some photos from recent VIVA Colombia guidebook users:


Alternative Nightlife Options in Quito

Here at VIVA, we are busy updating the Ecuador book and are currently working on the Quito section. We have a unique perspective, since our office is located in Quito and all of our full-time staff lives in the city. That’s why we have compiled a list of some awesome nightlife spots outside of the well-known, party-centric La Mariscal neighborhood. If you are looking for a more low key night but still want to unwind, enjoy a pretty view of Quito, see a movie or show, or catch up with friends, we’ve got you covered.

1. El Pobre Diablo: This relaxed jazz bar in the La Floresta neighborhood has live music most weekend nights, hosting both local and visiting acts in various genres, including funk, acid jazz, salsa, soul, drum and bass, and world music. Solo artists as well as cover bands also take the stage. On nights when there are live acts, it is recommended to reserve a table in advance (and expect to pay a cover anywhere between $6.50 and 8). Accompany the music with some (pricey) drinks and appetizers.

2. Ocho y Medio: Run by a cultural organization founded by local film makers, Ochoymedio is an alternative independent movie theater in the La Floresta neighborhood. In addition to hosting film festivals, it regularly shows documentaries, foreign films and local Ecuadorian productions. Many of the films have subtitles in English, depending on their origin. Sometimes, classic old movies are on the agenda. It also has a café/bar/restaurant where you can grab a bite to eat or a coffee or beer before or after the showing.

3. Café Mosaico: It is hard to beat the view of the Centro Histórico from Café Mosaico’s outdoor terrace, right below Parque Itchimbia. This artsy restaurant is perfect for a romantic meal or to sip on coffee or a glass of wine at the end of a long workweek. Its menu is packed with international food and has a fair amount of Ecuadorian and Greek specialties. If there is no space outside, grab a spot by one of the cozy indoor fireplaces. On weekends, there is often traditional live music.

4. La Ronda: Quito’s oldest street fills up on weekend evenings with locals and foreigners looking for a laid-back evening. The cobblestone street in Centro Histórico is packed with art galleries and small restaurants selling empanadas and other traditional Ecuadorian food. It is a great place to sample canelazo (warm alcoholic drink made with cane alcohol, fruits and cinnamon), which is sold at nearly every locale on La Ronda. You will see many chilly patrons sipping on the classic drink outside to warm their bodies and souls.

5. Seseribó: There is no better way to immerse yourself in quiteño culture than salsa dancing, and Seseribó is one of the city’s best salsa spots. This underground dancing den sometimes has live salsa bands (but always has a salsa DJ) and hosts special events. Many salsa instructors come here to dance and practice their routines, so it is a good place to learn the steps and also a fun place to watch good salsa dancing. Most nights, there is a cover after 10 p.m., but it included one drink and a basket of popcorn and fried plantain chips. The best nights to come are Thursday-Saturday.

6. Guápulo cafés: Guápulo is a cute, bohemian neighborhood off of Gónzalez Suárez Street. The upper part of the only cobblestone road that runs through it, Camino de Orellana, is lined with artsy cafés and bars, most of with awesome views of the Guápulo church and the valley of Cumbayá below. You can easily stop by a few of them in one night, or just hole up at one and enjoy the chilled-out atmosphere, good music and photo-worthy views. Some good choices are Pizzería AnankéCafé GuápuloMirador del Guápulo and Café ChiQuito.

7. Café Libro: Café Libro is a cultural center that hosts literary readings, open mic nights, salsa and tango classes, creative writing workshops, and photography exhibits. Almost every night of the week it has some sort of activity, so check its website,, for the full schedule of events. Many nights there is a minimum consumption, but the menu has lots of appetizers, sandwiches, burgers and salads, as well as beer, wine and mixed drinks.

8. Patio de Comedias: Patio de Comedias is one of the only places in town to see stand-up comedy. Plus, it has lots of other theater performances and workshops for those of all age groups looking for a taste of local theater. Check for a list of current shows.

9. Centro Cultural Casa Nostra: This restaurant meets cultural center has set dinners (usually around $15) that include entertainment in the form of theater, magic shows, live music or art exhibitions. The set dinner usually includes a welcoming cocktail and several different types of sushi rolls. Check for more information on current programming.

Tungurahua Volcano: Active Again

Tungurahua is at it again. One of the most active volcanoes in Ecuador, Tungurahua—meaning “Throat of Fire” in the area’s indigenous language, Quichua—has been intermittently spewing lava and ash since 1999. Just Monday, December 17, the volcano started erupting again, prompting the Ecuadorian government and the U.S. embassy to issue an emergency travel warning to the area. Residents of the touristy town of Baños, which is located at the foot of the volcano, along with residents of nearby towns, were urged to voluntarily evacuate and school classes were suspended. Baños is located about 3.5 hours south of Quito in the province in Tungurahua, named for the volcano that calls it home.

Interestingly enough, Tungurahua is as much a tourist attraction as a threat to travelers and residents of Baños. Thousands of travelers per year come to Baños just hoping for a glimpse of the fiery lava spewing from the volcano’s cone. In fact, every night, tour operators run chiva tours (tours in open-sided party buses) at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. to see the volcano from the Bellavista viewpoint. Most who sign up hope to be treated to a fire show, but depending on the weather and cloud cover, you may not even be able to make out the volcano’s shape. Whether or not you catch Tungurahua in action, the tours are a cheap nighttime activity and end with a complimentary canelazo, or warm alcoholic beverage made with sugar can alcohol, fruits and cinnamon.

You can get up-to-the-minute updates about Tungurahua’s current volcanic activities at:

The latest update is as follows: “Thursday, December 20, 2012:

Tungurahua volcano (Ecuador): increasing activity and new pyroclastic flow

An explosion at 01:50 (local time) this night was followed by an increase of seismic and visible activity. Between 02:00 and 04:00 am, explosions followed at intervals of only 5 minutes and produced loud cannon-shot noises and shock waves, and ejected incandescent blocks of various sizes. At 02:30, a pyroclastic flow ran down the Cusua ravine, and strong ash fall was reported from Penipe.”

Latin American News from Around the Web

Stay up-to-date and informed with the biggest headlines from Latin America this week:

1) Thousands of dissatisfied Argentines protest against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s government policies, just a week after she officially lowered the voting age in Argentina from 18 to 16:

2) At least 48 people are dead in Guatemala after a 7.4-magnitude earthquake hit on Wednesday, November 7, shaking Central America all the way up to Mexico City:

3) Fifty-four percent of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood on Tuesday, November 6, awaiting final approval from Congress to become the 51st state of the United States of America:

4) The 20-year “banana war” has officially come to an end, as 11 Latin American countries (Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela and Peru) signed an agreement with the European Union over banana tariffs:

Community Tourism in Saraguro

Of all the different types of tourism out there, community tourism can be of particular interest to foreigners coming to a country that has a diverse set of long-standing cultures. In Ecuador, there are many opportunities for community tourism, but the one being run by Fundación Kawsay in Saraguro is especially interesting, though more catered to groups or families.

Saraguro's Main Plaza

Saraguro refers to both the town located between Cuenca and Loja and to its surrounding canton, which consists of many small communities that inhabit a total of 31,000 people. Some of these communities include Ilincho, Namarín, Tuncarta and Las Lagunas. The town and canton is named for the indigenous group (also called Saraguro) who inhabits the area, the only indigenous group in the province of Loja to survive the Spanish conquest. Saraguro is a primarily agricultural-based community; each family has its own organic garden and animals and live off of their own land for sustenance.

Saraguro Woman Walking Through Her Organic Garden

Some attribute the Saraguros’ ability to preserve their culture so well to their strong nuclear families, their alternative education system where kids learn about traditions and culture before they learn how to recite the alphabet, and purity, as most do not marry outside of their communities. Saraguros are also known for their distinct dress, where men where cropped pants and ponchos and women wear long black pleated skirts, black shawls and intricate beaded necklaces, and both wear brimmed black hats and their hair in one long braid.

Visiting the communities is not possible independently, so if you have an interest in touring them or arranging a home stay with a local family, you need to contact the only tour operator in town, Sararku, which works closely with Fundación Kawsay. Staying with a family is a unique experience to peek into the lives of Ecuador’s best-preserved indigenous culture and share in some of the family’s daily tasks. The people in Saraguro are very friendly and open to answering questions about their lifestyle. Alternatively, you can stay in the community-run hostel, Hostal Achik Wasi, which has pretty views of Saraguro from above.

The Community-Run Hostal Achik Wasi

All home stays cost $27 and include accommodation, three meals a day, and family activities such as tending to the farm, cooking together or making local artisan products. The rooms where guests stay are comfortable and have bathrooms with hot water. Meals tend to be vegetarian and grain-based, including mote (hominy), potatoes, rice, quinoa, cheese empanadas and salads. Money from the home stays is funneled back into the individual communities to assist with completing community projects.

Making Cheese Empanadas During Home Stay

Besides family activities, visitors can arrange to visit some of the interesting sites in the community, which give insight into the communities’ way of life. Options include visiting a weaving workshop or traditional hat workshop, visiting organic medicinal gardens and learning about various curative plants, participating in local rituals with music, water and fire, and visiting sacred waterfalls. An especially interesting time to visit is during the town’s Inti Raymi celebration, or Festival of the Sun, the town’s biggest celebration.

Visiting Traditional Hat Workshop in Village of Tuncarta

To get to Saraguro from Cuenca, take any Loja-bound bus and ask to be let off in Saraguro. The ride costs $5 to and from Cuenca (3-4 hr) and $1.75 to and from Loja (1.5 hr).

Why are Panama Hats Called Panama Hats if They are Made in Ecuador?

Panama hats are Ecuador’s most iconic souvenir, yet their name is attached to the country whose strip of land connects Central and South America. The handwoven hats, made with straw from the toquilla palm plant that is endemic to Ecuador’s Pacific coast, have been made in Ecuador for centuries and can be traced back to the Incas. So why, then, are they called Panama hats?

There are several theories as to why, and it is probably true that each theory has contributed to its reputation in some way. One major factor was Panama’s position as a center for trade and transport, especially in the mid-1850s during the Gold Rush in the United States. At the time, Ecuador did not see much tourism or trade, so it exported its hats to Panama to sell from there. Additionally, Ecuador did not have the technology to be able to mark the hats with a stamp or label that said “Made in Ecuador,” so people assumed the hats were made in the the same country they were bought in.

"Panama Hats," by capelle79 (

When thousands of North Americans on the east coast went in search of gold in California, many traveled by boat through Panama to get there, as it was a quicker option than traveling across the United States via land. Many of these American travelers bought the straw hats while passing through Panama and returned to the United States with their new accessory. When asked where they got their fine woven hats, people said Panama.

In 1881, the 23-year project to build the Panama Canal began. Many of the workers who constructed the Panama Canal wore the hats to fend off the strong sun, adding to its association with Panama. These hats were perfect for the job since they are lightweight and breathable. The Panama hat gained even more fame when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed in one of the straw hats while visiting the Panama Canal in 1906. The photo was widely published in the U.S. and was mistakenly called a Panama hat; from that point on, the name “Panama hat” really stuck.

President Theodore Roosevelt in a Panama Hat

Others claim that the travelers passing through the Panama Canal over time who wore the hat gave it its name, rather than the canal workers or President Teddy Roosevelt. No matter what you believe the real origin or continued use of the term “Panama hat” for the Ecuadorian-made product is, there is no doubt that these hats are made in Ecuador,  primarily in and around Cuenca and on the coast in towns like Montecristi and Jipijapa (which is why the hat was actually technically called a Jipijapa hat).

The Southern Coast of Ecuador's Quieter Alternatives

Chances are if you are traveling to the southern coast of Ecuador, you are heading to Puerto López, Montañita or Salinas. While these towns definitely all have tourism appeal and a better tourism infrastructure to match, the small beach towns dotting the coast in between them provide for ultimate relaxation and unique experiences, and should not be overlooked. Additionally, they are all simple to get to. Just head to the main coastal highway—also known as the Ruta del Spondylus—wave out your hand and hop on any north- or south-bound bus and ask to be let off at the town you are going to. Here are a few of those small beach towns you won’t want to miss:

Salangothis sleepy village six kilometers (3.7 mi) from Puerto López is an authentic fishing town with excellent seafood restaurants and an archaeological museum that has artifacts dating back more than 5,000 years. Salango sits in front of Isla Salango, which has ample opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving. It also participates in community tourism and has community-run lodging in rustic cabañas.

Las Tunas: a place for relaxation, Las Tunas is merely a long strip of clean beach bordered by a small Malecón and several nice hostels and eco-lodges. Many of these hotels are set in gardens and have private beach access, and during off-season, you will likely have the beach all to yourself.

Las Tunas

Ayampe: further south down the same beach as Las Tunas is this quiet surfer’s paradise with big swells and small crowds. For such a tiny place, though, there is a fairly big selection of lodging options, ranging from camping to more upscale bungalows with an on-site spa. Ayampe also has a small swamp and nature trails that can be explored by foot or bike.


Ayangue: a small, still undeveloped coastal town built around a calm bay partially enclosed by cliffs, Ayangue is a laid-back, family-friendly beach between Salinas and Montañita. It is surrounded by virgin forest with Palo Santo plants and is known for its scuba diving opportunities at the nearby Islote El Pelado, which has colorful coral and a statue of Christ underwater. The friendly locals and cheap lobsters are just extra reasons to come. Also accessible from here are the Baños Termales de San Vicente, which are hot springs and mud baths in a volcanic crater, where you can also enjoy a massage or relax in a sauna.


Ballenita: Ballenita, or Little Whale, is basically on the map due to the magical Hostería Farallon Dillon, which doubles as a nautical museum. The museum showcases items collected during the last 30 years while sailing, and you can see 18th-century diving equipment, adornments from bows and objects used by navigators. Whether you decide to spend a night here or merely visit the gallery with marine artifacts and enjoy lunch on the water, this is an interesting stop on the Ruta del Spondylus.

Dakar Rally 2012 South America Style

This year’s Dakar Rally, a long-distance off-road vehicle race that dates back to 1977, is currently taking place in South America. Starting in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and ending in Lima, Peru, the almost 5,000-kilometer (3,107-mi) route passes through 14 cities in Argentina, Chile and Peru, including a ride through the infamous Atacama Desert. Participants can complete the race by bike, quad, car or truck, and there are winners in each category, in addition to an overall winner.

This is the fourth annual Dakar in South America. Up until 2009, the Dakar Rally began in Europe, usually in Paris, and ended in Africa, usually in Dakar, Senegal, hence its name. However, due to terrorist activity and general security issues in Mauritania, the 2008 race was cancelled. The following year, a decision was made to transplant the race to South America. During the first South America edition of the Dakar Rally, 113 bikers, 13 quad riders, 91 car teams and 54 truck teams finished.

Today is Day 11 of the 15-day race, which incorporates one day of rest in Copiapó, Chile. The nearly 450 registered participants are riding from Iquique to Arica, Chile, today, a 694-kilometer (226-mi) stretch passing through Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal. Each day consists of two stages: the link stage, which follows road networks in order to get to the start of the special stage, and the special stage, the off-road timed portion of the ride. Of today’s total 694 kilometers (226 mi), 377 kilometers (234 mi) are part of the special stage. Competitors will arrive in Lima on January 15, marking the end of the race.

This year, like last, Dakar Rally has made a commitment to environmental conservation, emphasizing recycling and alternative energy. In addition to enforcing new race-wide rules regarding the environment, Dakar Rally will use profits and donations to support a local organization called Madre de Dios, which works against rainforest degradation in the Peruvian part of the Amazon. Additionally, this is the first Dakar where an electric battery-operated car is competing in the race.

For more information on Dakar and this year’s race, or to see some photos, visit

The Elves of El Bolsón, Argentina: Mythical or Magical?

Most people come to El Bolsón, in Argentina’s Lake District, for its spectacular mountain scenery, wooded hiking trails, holistic spas and bohemian spirit. What many don’t know is that a trip to El Bolsón may mean sleeping among the famous duendes, or goblins, which are said to inhabit the forests around the small village—or at least being entertained by stories of duende sightings over a glass of locally brewed beer at the bar.

"El Bolsón Río Azul lupines," by MiguelVierira, 2011:

It is no secret within town that a large population of elves lives in this area. Artists and creative types, who have called El Bolsón home since the 1960s, have cited the inspiration of these supernatural beings in their imaginative works.  It is commonly believed that there is a secret record of all the elves that live here, along with the names of some special guests who have visited them. This cherished list is known as the “Omsimitaica Honimac,” and can only be accessed by those who have had chance encounters with the duendes.

"El Bolson 2," by Pablo Arinci, 2009:

However, it has been an ongoing process of determining the truth in the stories told about run-ins with these gnomes. One thing is for sure: the duendes are nocturnal, sleeping in hidden spaces until sundown, when they gather for all-night revelry. Speculation points to a few major spots where these elves are thought to congregate, including at the foothills of Mount Piltriquiron, around the “Cabeza del Indio” (Indian’s Head), at the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Garden), in the “Bosque Tallado” (Carved Forest) and in the area around the “Cajón de Azul.”

"Bosque Tallado," by missgis, 2009:

The goblins are supposedly very happy, playful creatures, and are unafraid to interact with humans. When visitors happen upon one of their meeting places, they are said to welcome their guests with sweet elixir and strawberries. Three of the gnomes then present the traveler with three tiny clay pots filled with a pinch of stars, which is then planted in the visitor’s soul. After this ritual, the elves begin to recite ancient legends to the guest.

Many campers have reported incidents of duende activity on their campsites, shocked to find their trashed tent areas from the night before completely clean come morning. Some local residents have even mentioned finding passed out elves on their front lawns.

Although duendes are commonly associated with European mythology, enough evidence points to the existence of these magical creatures in the woods of El Bolsón, Argentina. However, whether you choose to believe in the Lord-of-the-Rings-esque nature of this place or not is up to you.

Weekend Beach Getaway in Ecuador for Feriado

It’s almost feriado here in Ecuador and in many other Latin American countries for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Most Ecuadorians flock to the coast during this holiday to sip on cervezas and savor ceviche while lying on the beach, relaxing away from the commotion of the larger cities. With all the beautiful beach towns studding the Pacific coast, it only becomes a question of where they will spend the extended weekend.

Ceviche on Ecuador's Coast

The most popular coastal provinces are Esmeraldas, Manabí and Guayas. Esmeraldas is on the northern coast and is the center of Afro-Ecuadorian culture in Ecuador. Although the city of Esmeraldas is big, dirty and dangerous, many quiteños head to this province for the nicer, more upscale beach towns of Tonsupa and Casablanca. Atacames is another popular destination, though it tends to be more crowded and rowdy, with bars and discos blasting reggaeton until the wee morning hours. Smaller surfing and fishing villages like Mompiche,Tonchigüe and Muisne have begun to attract foreigners for their laid-back vibes and cheap, delicious food. Don’t leave Esmeraldas without trying encocado, a typical plate of fish or shrimp in a coconut-based sauce.


Manabí is chock-full of worthwhile beaches, from the already-popular Canoa and upcoming Jama in the north to Puerto López and the surrounding Isla de La Plata and Parque Nacional Machililla in the south. Isla de La Plata is also known as the “poor man’s Galápagos,” because some Galápagos wildlife, including Blue-footed boobies, live on this easily accessible island. Los Frailes, known to be one of Ecuador’s most gorgeous secluded beaches, is located within Parque Nacional Machalilla, Ecuador’s only coastal national park.


Guayas, which houses Ecuador’s second largest city of Guayaquil, is the destination of choice for many guayaquileños. Guayaquil’s elite head to beaches like Salinas, where there is a fancy yacht club. Montañita is one of the most well-known beach towns in the province, and has become especially popular with foreigners. A bit touristy but still down-to-earth, Montañita is a true hippie haven and has a thriving nightlife. To escape Montañita’s crowds, some head to the sleepy fishing villages of Manglaralto and Ayangue instead, which have a more local feel.

Where will you be heading this holiday?