In the weeks leading up to our first South American trip as a family, amidst the ear infections, the packing, and the year-end busyness at the Knowmad Adventures office, I envisioned how amazing the experience in Ecuador would be for them, our kids.
I even jotted notes on themes for this blog post – specifically the old cliché of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. In reality, it was my own perspective that was shifted, through what my husband and fellow Knowmad founder, Jordan Harvey, coined as the lucha bonita or the beautiful struggle, a phrase that in many ways defines travel with small children.
Naturally, being in the business of planning custom trips in South America, many of which are for families (even ones that span three generations), we of course couldn’t wait to embark on one of our own. Jordan and I are continuous dreamers, and the problem with that is when you’re constantly evolving your dreams, you never really feel like you achieve any of them. This one was different. This one was distinct. I just knew that once we landed I would feel we’d actually realized this dream.
On Saturday, November 10th, we zipped the last luggage bag, practiced our system for attaching the carseats to the bags, and called a cab. Jordan had a travel summit and exploratory trip in Brazil for a couple weeks leading up to our trip, and so we got crafty. My sister who doubles as Knowmad’s Media Manager, Lisa Kellenberger, graciously met me and the kids in Minneapolis to help on the initial leg of the trip. We arrived at the airport with time to spare and filled water bottles, changed diapers, and noshed a bit at an eatery in preparation for our two flights; a short one to Atlanta first and then about 5 hours to Quito, arriving at midnight.
Jordan’s flight from Brazil to Quito originally had him arriving hours after ours would, but like the expert Travel Planner that he is, he made magic happen and was waiting for us as we came through customs in Quito. Watching our four-year-old son Trey, overjoyed, run to his Papa is one of my favorite memories from the whole trip. Belén, who’s only 1, squealed in delight and kicked her little legs when she saw him too. She was simply ecstatic for the next half hour and our hearts were bursting. That was my first inkling that this trip was going to be more than just “seeing the world through a child’s eyes,” but rather a transformative experience mostly for the parents.
Day 1 On the ground
We had a late morning transfer to Hacienda Zuleta, located in the Andes near Otavalo. This was my third time visiting the hacienda – a place steeped in history and culture. Now owned by the family of former Ecuadorian president Galo Lasso Plaza and run by his grandson, Fernando. Zuleta charms any traveler, but especially delights me – it’s an actual operating hacienda that makes its own cheese, breeds its own horses (two of my favorite things in life!), rehabilitates the majestic condor, and has well-marked miles of hiking trails that you can explore unguided.
We chose this place to share with our children because we knew that it would afford the freedom we needed in terms of juggling naptimes with excursions. The hacienda is completely set up for kids because it’s used by actual kids: every year during the festival of San Juan the gates are closed to travelers and four generations of the Lasso Plaza family run rampant. There’s a playground, a climbing wall, vegetable gardens, scavenger hunts, cows to try a hand at milking, and cheese pizza!
Never a dull moment, Trey threw up during the 2 ½ hour drive on the very windy mountainous roads. Papa somehow made a game of it, naming what each football player’s vomit would look like if they threw up. The rest of us grew green because of the descriptions, but we arrived in high spirits.
After an attempt at naptime, we went exploring in search of a local market. We ended up catching a ride in the back of a local’s pickup truck and followed the scent of roasting meat and corn, sidestepping rogue cows, to the small town center where llamas wandered through the embroidery stands. Trey proudly announced to anyone who would listen that he threw up and Jordan oddly enough translated it, which garnered some good laughs.
Day 2 to 5 Zuleta Hacienda in Otavalo
We sought to keep our itinerary very simple, spending 4 nights at Zuleta to maximize on experiences and cut down on travel days and moving around. We stayed in the Veronica & Manuel rooms, which are both spacious and can accommodate either twin beds or be combined for a king, plus room for a crib. Both opened to a courtyard that served as our own personal central living space, playroom, and backyard for the trip! Because Belén is 1 and still taking a hefty nap in the middle of the day, not to mention going to bed even earlier than normal because of all the extra stimulation of travel, the two-room setup was ideal. We frequently took turns resting or showering in the other room while the other one was off with Trey to let Belén sleep.
The dining room was a short distance away, although the thick adobe walls did prevent the monitor from reaching. We connected our iPhones to Wi-Fi and Face-timed each other for a makeshift monitor during later dinners. The food is delicious at Zuleta, authentic and hearty Ecuadorian fare generally served family-style. Special accommodations were made for our kids: grilled cheese and fruit for Trey at nearly every lunch, and morning yogurt and muesli available for our early riser, Belén.
Latin meals are typically slower than American ones; the idea is that they’re a break in your day, a time to be relaxed and enjoy each other’s company. In theory, that sounds amazing but in reality, mealtime with a fairly picky four-year-old and a tike who thinks food thrown on the floor or smeared in her hair is sooooo funny can be anything but relaxing. My advice would be to practice and come prepared. Eating while traveling means a lot of restaurant-type settings. Go out to eat with your kids before the trip and figure out what works.
Trey has been obsessed with these miniature American football figurines and, although we stressed over how losable they were, we brought them anyway and he played with them for a good 30 minutes each meal. He also can’t help but expressing (very dramatically, with gagging sounds) when he doesn’t like something. So, we came up with “code signs” like pulling on his left ear when he didn’t like something, and amended our mealtime rule of “trying everything on your plate, eating until your full and when you’re a clean-plate-clubber you can have a dessert” to just “trying everything,” and made it clear it was because we were on a special adventure together.
Belén still threw food on the floor and smeared it through her hair, but we just decided it wasn’t something we were going to stress about. Instead, we made friends with the wait staff, asking about their own children. Everyone understood. And we also observed that Latin American parents get through long meals by letting their kids run around a bit – so don’t feel guilty if your one-year-old crawls over to the next table!
A baby’s smile is the ultimate universal language. Like anywhere, the Zuleteña women would coo and tickle Belén for a reaction. She was enamored with their warm demeanors and the twinkle in their eyes and easily won over.
Aside from napping and eating, we spent our days exploring the hacienda at our own pace. Our Ecuador in-country coordinator visited with his family. We visited the condor rehabilitation center and explored the vegetable gardens with them, plus lots of old-fashioned playing. It was lovely watching our children, who had about twenty Spanish words in common, laugh and make up games together. A lifelong horseback rider, my particular highlight was going on a ride with Trey. His trusted steed Daule was lead by a guide on a flat loop around the property, in total about 30 minutes. Trey was thrilled and described it as an obstacle course!
Day 6 – 9 Mashpi Lodge in the Cloud forest
Our transfer to the cloud forest was longer, about 5 hours, and even more windy. I preemptively gave Trey some kids’ Dramamine this time and he slept a lot of the way. My sister Lisa continued onto Quito at this juncture, and our family of four continued to the cloud forest, or high altitude jungle.
Mashpi Lodge is named by National Geographic as one of the Unique Lodges of the World for good reason — it’s perched atop a muddy mountain held intact by thick vegetation, abundant with bird and bug life. As our sprinter van climbed, higher waterfalls crashed over the road we were enveloped by a thick fog. Trey exclaimed, “We’re in a cloud!” and we truly were.
It was magical, but also the more challenging part of our trip. It’s really just not possible to explore the cloud forest on your own since it’s so easy to get lost on trails that seemingly disappear once trod upon due to little mud slides and the ever-decaying flora falling from the trees above. Not to mention, among the harmless hummingbirds and butterflies, are vipers and quita tu calzoncillos trees (trees that make you “quit your underwear” because they emit hordes of fire ants when touched). So, aside from planned excursions, we were mostly sequestered in the lodge. As well, as a result of the wet climate, Mashpi’s modern architecture employs lots of concrete and corten steel and, although striking, it wasn’t exactly the best match for a one-year-old learning to walk and obsessed with stairs.
We also had only arranged to have one room here for the four of us. Earlier on the trip, even with a napper, this would have worked totally fine, but by this point we were all pretty wiped. And try as I might, Belén would simply not nap with any of us in the room. I literally tried lying on the concrete floor next to the bed & the floor-to-ceiling windows for an hour so that she couldn’t see me and would nap, yet still with no success.
That night, while trying to enjoy a delectable and long four-course meal with two overly tired children, Jordan and I definitely gave each other the “What were we thinking?” look and then resolved to make the best of it. And sometimes that’s all it takes on a trip, a little change within. A look that served as a sort of mantra – this is an adventure, not a vacation, and we are going to make the best of it.
The next morning, a breakfast buffet awaited (oh the joys of a buffet!) and Trey had cookies for breakfast. And for snack. And after lunch. And he wore his pajamas all day long. And for the next three days. We strapped them both to our backs and met our guides, Lizardo and Carlos, who were both from a local cloud forest community, and their warm, quiet demeanors calmed us, along with their superior knowledge of everything poisonous, itchy, or stinging. We got a couple of hours of sunshine, which is rare in the cloud forest, and hiked along a riverbed to a waterfall. Not caring if we got wet, doling out cookies the whole time. It was wonderful.
Another group joined us at the waterfall, said to be spiritual and healing by the indigenous groups there, and we made small talk in Portspanglesh (they were coming from Brazil and Mexico for a convention in Quito).
“You’re so brave traveling with such small children!” they said.
“It’s a fine line between brave and crazy, isn’t it?” Jordan replied and we shared a laugh.
“And to think she won’t even remember it.” I acquiesced, referring to Belén.
“They won’t remember it, true, but they’ll remember the feeling of it. That stays inside of them.”
I almost cried. The mist from the healing cascada. The sunshine smiling down. A coming together of world citizens around children and their innocence, but our wonder. That little pebble of truth. It’s the feeling that stays inside us all. The lucha bonita. The beautiful struggle.
Day 10 Quito Polo Club near the Airport in Quito
After making our way out of the cloud forest, we planned a buffer night and day at Quito Polo Club. International flights to the States generally leave around 1:00 a.m. from Quito, and we knew that coming from Mashpi and going directly to the airport to wait for too many hours, or even having an excursion planned while we left our luggage in the sprinter van, would be too much for our group. For travelers flying from the Galapagos in the morning and connecting on an international flight home that evening, resulting in a long layover, Knowmad Trip Specialists sometimes plan for day use at a hotel like Quito Polo Club, conveniently located near the airport.
Having never been to the Quito Polo Club, we discovered for ourselves what an excellent option it is for families with small children in need of a buffer day. It’s an actual polo club, with expansive green fields used for the game on either side of a small clustering of villas, and it also has a restaurant, a playground, and two pools. During the season, you can watch the polo matches and practices.
For us, it was a perfect end to our trip. We spent the day swimming, napping, repacking, and relaxing in the spacious villas, complete with a small living room, fireplace, and even a TV broadcasting the Vikings game – skol! Trey and Jordan couldn’t contain their excitement.
A couple of hours later, we found ourselves trapped under sleeping kids, flying through the night sky over oceans and unknown lands, waiting for future adventures with children in tow. We shared another look – but this time it was one that said “this was worth it.”
Is a trip with young children to South America a dream of yours too? Get started by reaching out to Knowmad Trip Specialist at [email protected] or calling 612-315-2894. They can help guide you in kid-friendly excursions, lodging, and itinerary pacing, ultimately planning and executing a trip that’s a perfect fit for your family.
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Un Beso, Tara
Tara is the Co-Founder, Marketing and Operations Manager at Knowmad Adventures, a company dedicated to creating unique, private and custom trips in South America. She first traveled to South America in college and is endlessly inspired by the cultures, food, colors and idiosyncrasies she discovers there. Read Tara’s biography and more about the Knowmad team.