We kicked off our trip in Oaxaca, Mexico, going straight from our “real life” in California to Spanish School. In Puerto Escondido, we took an actual “vacation” after a full month of school and sightseeing. In Mexico City, we became tourists for the first time. We ran all over, checked out all the sights, and did all the things in a short amount of time. This trend mostly continued through Cusco, Arequipa, and Lima in Peru.
While we were in Arequipa, Allison and I decided that we wanted to try something that was in-between Mexico City and Puerto Escondido. Not full touristing, running all over, spending money, losing sleep, but something that also wasn’t just lounging around and drinking mojitos. We wanted something that kept us active and social but kept the surroundings familiar and comfortable. We had projects we wanted to work on including this blog and my app WaterMe which I had worked hard over the summer to get it done, but hadn’t quite finished before we left.
We decided a way to do this would be to take a look at WorkAway– a website that helps you find volunteer jobs in other countries in return for free lodging and some free food. Its pretty cool if you find a rewarding place to work. We sent emails to our top choices and we crossed our fingers. We were hoping to get accepted anywhere but we really hoped we would be invited to work at Llullu Llama. Much to our surprise, a few days later we were offered to come work there for a month and we were thrilled.
When we arrived we were greeted by a super nice couple from Germany, Clemens and Linda, at the front desk. Allison and I told them that we were new volunteers and they got super excited. They welcomed us, show us to our room, gave us a full tour of the hostel. For the first night, we hung out with them but didn’t really work, just observed, and relaxed.
The owners of Llullu Llama want all volunteers to hike the loop so they’re more informed about it when explaining the trail, how to do it, and what its like to the guests, when they check in. At dinner Linda and Clemens told us a little about the loop and helped us plan our own hike. We planed to go for 3 or 4 days then start our full training to begin running the hostel. I wrote an overview of our hike of the loop here.
On second arrival we were welcomed, again, by Clemens and Linda. We took the night off and enjoyed a dip in the hot tub to relax our sore muscles. Yup, Llullu Llama has a hot tub ?♀️! The hot tub is also near where the hostel’s llama grazes, and so sometimes we were lucky enough to get really hilarious shadow pictures of llama like this! After the hot tub, dinner with Clemens and Linda, we went to bed, ready to start our training then next day.
Training at Llullu Llama was fairly informal. Clemens and Linda showed us the ropes. They explained which things were our responsibility and which were the responsibilities of the staff. The staff would do the cooking, cleaning, changing the linens, etc. We were responsible for most things related to guests; check in/out, serving dinner, serving breakfast, manning the bar, etc.
We would wake up at 7:30, go downstairs, either Allison or I would run checkout and the other would run breakfast. Checkout involved adding up everyone’s bill, collecting their cash, and doing a bit of reporting after everyone was gone. It was sometimes tedious but not at all difficult.
The person doing breakfast had to bring the breakfast food from the kitchen to the tables. The breakfast personal also had to collect all the dishes at the end of breakfast and bring them back to the kitchen. The last responsibility of the breakfast person was to prepare the left overs for the volunteers to eat for breakfast. If there weren’t enough leftovers we could make some more eggs or, sometimes, the staff would make more for us.
Llullu Llama has the best food on the loop (except for maybe Black Sheep Inn, which is more than double the nightly price). Breakfast always included fresh cut fruit, housemaid yoghurt, fresh baked bread, a big platter of scrambled eggs, and a fresh fruit smoothie. I normally avoid fruit salad type dishes in California because they’re usually mostly melon and even then, the rest of the fruit is not that good, but the fruit in Ecuador is so amazing! Every day the strawberries, pineapple, and watermelon were all delicious.
After breakfast we would would leave the hostel for an hour or more to get some sun and walk Balloo. (More on that later.)
After walking the dog, it was usually lunch time. The volunteers were on our own for lunch, but we had access to the full kitchen. At the beginning, I was very nervous to use the kitchen, because I didn’t want to mess anything up for the staff. I also didn’t know where anything was. As time wore on, these fears subsided. Usually made a grilled cheese or would warm up leftovers we had saved from the day before. Lunch was free, which is great, but its not like we had many other options. There wasn’t really a place to “go out” in Isinlivi anyway. Occasionally there was a woman selling fish and chips for 50¢ on the street. I tried it once and ended up eating only the chips ?.
After lunch, we had some free time. Guests usually didn’t start arriving until around 2pm and there weren’t many until around 4pm. Because there was little to do in town, this was usually our chance to work on our own stuff. I would work on my app WaterMe and Allison would write.
Around 4pm, either Allison or I would man the check-in desk and the other person would man the bar. Check-in was simple. We would ask if they had a reservation, if they didn’t we’d find them a bed and tell them the price. We would give everyone a full tour of the hostel. For guests staying in the private cabañas, this could be a little exhausting as there was quite a hill to climb coming back to the main building from the cabañas.
Running the bar was usually pretty easy. People normally ordered beer and wine which are easy to serve. We also made killer mojitos! They were so good because we had fresh mint growing in the garden that smelled and tasted so good in the drinks.
Dinner was at 6:30pm every day. Our responsibilities at dinner were to help with moving the food and dishes around and to keep serving drinks. Either Allison or I would do the food part and the other would run the bar. Dinner was a little more work than breakfast because there are 3 courses: soup, main, and dessert. Between each course, I would have to bring the food from the kitchen to the table and then bring the dirty dishes back, easy.
The only complication came when we had guests that had dietary restrictions, which Llullu Llama worked hard to support, sometimes even resorting to making a special one-off dish for people that needed it (and they were delicious). But that sometimes complicated bring the food in and out. We did our best.
After the guests finished dinner, we would serve ourselves dinner. Like breakfast everything at dinner was homemade but the options were limited. The main course rotated between three basic options all with roughly the same ingredients: shepherds pie, quiche and lasagna. The staff would usually make us an extra portion. Dinner was pretty much always good, but by the end of our stay, they got pretty repetitive and we were looking forward to some different flavors.
After dinner, we were pretty much done. Sometimes we would still need to make more drinks or do one off requests, but mostly we time to relax and enjoy ourselves. This was also a great time to chit chat with guests. (More on that later.) By 10pm most people were in bed or going to bed. Remember, everyone was there to wake up early the next morning and hike, not to party. This was nice because we were usually in bed by 11pm, ready to wake up at 7:30am and do it all over again.
One of our responsibilities was walking the hostel’s dog, Balloo! Balloo is a massive Saint Bernard. He is a very friendly and loving dog. Even though he is massive, he acts a lot like a puppy, which is fun but can also be kind of frightening. He definitely liked to run toward me and jump on me and because he is 150 lb or more, he can easily knock me over. Check out this video of Balloo playing with the hostel’s llama, it will give you an idea of how big he is.
Every day Allison and I had a really good excuse to leave the hostel, to take Balloo on his daily walk. Everyone in the village knew who Balloo was and so they would all wave at us and say hi. Walking Balloo instantly made us part of the community. We got to explore the village and the surrounding hills. All of the area surrounding the hostel was so beautiful. Some days it was amazingly sunny, some days it was a bit more gray, but it was always beautiful.
This was also our chance to get our daily exercise. We would walk Balloo for an hour or more, then come back to the hostel and do some exercises in the yoga room. It was a really healthy routine for us. We both lost a lot a few pounds the month we were at Lullu Llama.
Lastly, we enjoyed this time because Allison and I would get some alone time during our walks. This was rare when at the hostel. It always seemed like there was some guest or staff member that needed something. Our walks were our chance to discuss politics back home, or how we were feeling that day, or to gossip a bit about guests.
The only downside of the walks were that sometimes Balloo would act up. He really liked playing with sheep. And they really did not like him. It took all of our strength to hold him on his leash when he saw sheep on the path in front of us, and the rare occasion when we failed to control him around sheep, we really regretted it. Balloo would chase them all over and they would run so hard. Balloo would never hurt them but he would scare the shit out of them and so Allison and I really tried to avoid being in that situation.
Walking Balloo was definitely one of the “centering” experiences of working at Llullu Llama. I’m not sure we would have made it the whole month without losing our minds without walking Balloo. Thanks buddy ?!
Sometimes it could seem like the volunteers ran Llullu Llama, but Allison and I always felt it was important to remind ourselves that Llullu Llama is really run by the staff. Without them there would be no hostel. They worked almost every day, all day, and they worked really hard. They did all the cleaning of the rooms and the linens. They also did all the cooking. Many of them had worked at the hostel for 5+ or even 10+ years and they have all seen the English speaking volunteers come and go. Despite this they were always very kind to us and incredibly helpful when we had problems. Speaking with them also helped us to improve our Spanish quite a bit. They were patient and polite with the language barrier.
I just wanted to use the opportunity of this blog post to thank them so much. To thank them for inviting us into their working environment. Thank them for being patient with yet more gringos that can barely speak Spanish. Thank them for showing us the ropes and helping us whenever we had a tough situation. Thank them for making our volunteering experience incredibly memorable and rewarding. I know they’ll never read this, but I still want to thank them for everything!
Clemens and Linda, the other volunteers also added to the how rewarding the experience was for Allison and I. They were always fun to hang out with, we got to exchange a lot of cool information about all of our cultures. We learned how to make German Christmas cookies, which were super delicious! I taught Clemens how to add hot sauce to all food, like any good American does. And we got to share the holidays together, which was important because we were all so far from our families for the holidays. Unfortunately, Clemens and Linda were only with us for about half our time at Llullu Llama. It was definitely a sad day when they left. After that, Allison and I were on our own for about 10 days before another wonderful volunteer arrived. Not only did we have to work more, but we really missed our new friends. I’m feeling a bit emotional just writing about it now ?.
Llullu Llama has the absolute best guests. I’m not joking. I can’t imagine that there are many other hotels/hostels that have such a high percentage of polite, considerate, and adventurous guests. This may be due to the remote location of the hostel. It may also be due to the obscurity of the Quilotoa Loop. Whatever the reason, it was an incredible experience hosting such amazing people.
It was a great pleasure for Allison and I to be able to be able to hang out with our guests. We met lots of people from the US: a guy who had been traveling since 2010, a fellow iOS developer from San Francisco, (a rare glimpse back into my former tech world), a psychologist from Chicago. Sometimes we got to tell people our story. Sometimes we got to hear all of their stories. We learned about a bunch of places we should go on our trip. In fact, Allison and I were planning to skip the Galapagos because its so expensive. But so many guests coming through Llullu Llama said that it was so incredibly amazing and worth the cost, so we decided we had to do it!
We also met people from all over the world! So so so many people from the Netherlands. Not sure why that is, but it seemed like 40% of the guests were Dutch. The remaining portion was split between Germany, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Occasionally we would have guests from elsewhere in Latin America. I think these guests were usually a little surprised and, maybe a little upset, that everyone at Llullu Llama was speaking English almost all the time, but we enjoyed meeting them because it gave us yet another opportunity to practice our Spanish.
One guest was French Canadian and, for a reason that I still don’t know, he had brought many cans of Canadian Maple Syrup on his trip with him. He was handing them out to other guest and he even gave us one! It was such a treat to have a taste of something different in our remote village. Occasionally, the staff made pancakes for breakfast, but usually we just ate it with fruit. After we received the real thing we made ourselves lots of French toast and bread pudding (which was a recipe on the back of the can) just to be able to use more of the syrup.
Isinlivi, where Llullu Llama is situated, is a small and sleepy village. There are no restaurants or bars, and most people live in their farms surrounding the village, not the village itself. But over the Christmas and New Years holiday, that all changed. All the sons, daughters, and grandchildren leave Quito and come back home for the holidays. The village organizes a MASSIVE party for everyone, and we were just lucky enough to be able to experience this unique time of the year.
There were parades during the day and live music and partying all night. This went on for three days straight. There was a massive fireworks show, like nothing I’ve seen. It looked like a firework could come dislodged and fly into the crowd at any time, but it was so much fun!
On Christmas Even night, all the volunteers and guests went up to enjoy the festivities and dance. And being the only white people there, we certainly attracted a crowd. There were games and bouncy houses and other attractions for the young kids as well. And of course, there was street food. But this street food was more raw than what we had seen in Quito. I watched as a village woman cut up a pig carcass with an axe right next to her food cart. It was pretty gross, but also very impressive. We were told before we arrived that the holidays were big for the village, but we had no idea it was this big.
It was bound to happen. After being around so many people, Allison and I both got really sick. Like really really sick. Allison was bed-ridden first. Her symptoms were sore throat, headache, fever, etc. We figured it was a cold, but after she had had a fever for 3 days straight, and I started getting a sore throat myself we decided to go to the doctor in the village. The language barrier made things a little difficult, but luckily, most medical words are fairly similar between English and Spanish. Also, the questions were really typical. The doctor examined our throats and listened to our breathing. She prescribed a 3 day antibiotic to each of us. We paid about $15 for the medicine and nothing for the clinic visit. I’m not sure if thats how it works for everyone in Ecuador, but we were pleasantly surprised by how fast, painless, and inexpensive the doctor visit was. A stark contrast to our American healthcare system, but lets not go there.
We both started immediately taking the antibiotics. The next day I fell hard and was bed-ridden for a couple of days as well, but because I had the antibiotics sooner, I don’t think my symptoms were as bad or lasted as long as they did for Allison. I think we’re both thankful that the manager was able to help and that the new volunteer who had just arrived right around this time was a total rockstar and handled everything on her first day while Allison and I were in bed. Getting sick was highly unpleasant but we were both grateful to be in a place that felt so much like home when it happened.
Volunteering at Llullu Llama for a month was an extremely rewarding experience. Allison and I got to relax, and work, and play. We got to meet a whole bunch of new people, some just for a few hours, others for weeks. We got to practice our Spanish. We got to exercise and to focus a little on being healthy. We got to have an adopted family for Christmas and the New Year on our journey abroad. Volunteering at Llullu Llama is definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that Allison and I will never forget!