Out of all the countries we’ve been to so far on this trip, our favourite has been Ecuador. The people are really friendly and kind; the landscapes are amazing, the cities are full of character and we’ve had some great, great experiences in the country.
However, for some reason, all this amazingness hasn’t been translated into blog entries. We’ve had major writing block and thus, have not properly relayed all the good times – and there have been some serious good times. We left the country over a week ago and yet, we still haven’t written about most of what we experienced. And further, we have already composed a blog entry for Uruguay (the next stop), yet, because Jen is somewhat OCD, we can’t post that until we appropriately cover Ecuador.
To do this, we have provided a bit of a round-up below on each of the places we visited. Each could in fact have their own blog entry – they were that awesome and we will be forever talking about our 2+ weeks of Ecuadorean fun-ness, but none the less, a few summaries. . .
As our avid reader will recall, we were supposed to get to Ecuador two days prior to when we did, but flight issues landed us in Bogota for that time. We were originally going to go first to Quito.
As part of our planning for Quito, we organised a quick day trip to Otavalo to see the Saturday market, which is supposedly the largest in all South America. To make sure we had plenty of time at the market (Jen likes to wander and take photos), we booked a hostel there for the Friday night before.
So, when did we finally arrive into the country? Of course – on the Friday night. Because there were mixed messages as to when the last bus up north was, we were slightly panicked as to whether yet again something wouldn’t go to plan – particularly since our flight was delayed. We were shooting to get an 8pm bus, so we went straight to the bus station, even splurging on the taxi fare to get there. We didn’t arrive until around 8:30. Yet relief settled in once we realised there were still plenty of buses to be had. We hopped on and settled in for the 2-hour ride.
Apparently, the drive up to Otavalo is meant to be gorgeous. It’s through the mountains and looks out over the volcanic landscape. As it was night and pitch dark, we didn’t see a thing. Sadly, on our return on Saturday, it was our one day of rain for the entire time in the country and thus, we again didn’t see a thing. . .
Since we arrived pretty late, we found a quick place for dinner – only $4, including beer (the fact that things are cheap in Ecuador is another reason to love it). And then settled in for the night.
The next morning at breakfast in the hostel, we met an American couple, who now live half their time in Ecuador. They were previously dairy farmers in Missouri and still go back to visit, however now that their eldest son runs the farm, they decided to move to South America for a bit. They live outside Banos (more on that locale later) and when we said twe were planning on going there, they told us to stop by their place on a weekend, since that’s when their children (they’ve adopted 17 over the years, many from Colombia) have a street stand selling ‘the best donuts in Ecuador’. They described their place as ‘the large house with a green gate at the top of a hill between Banos and Puyo’.
Following breakfast, we headed out to the market. Now it should be said that the market is actually a few different markets spread across the town and focusing on different things. There’s the main craft market in the square, which most go to, but there’s also the animal market just on the edge of town, a children’s market which appeared more like a bit of a fun fair and then all the side streets have various food and goods vendors.
After speaking to the American couple, we decided to go to the animal market first (particularly since it ended earlier). Jen was sceptical, as she was certain she wouldn’t like it. Yet after being assured that there weren’t animals in cages and it was a bit more like a state fair, then we decided to head off.
We get to the end of one road and there’s several people, some in traditional dress, gathered and haggling over chickens, geese and sheep, which are just held casually by their owners.
Or in one case, carried like a child. . .
However, apparently this was the informal animal market – the real one was a bit further up.
We arrive and there’s a decent sized field filled with cows. They weren’t in pens, just simply tied to a post and most were just chilling, eating the grass around their area, as their owners and prospective buyers walked around talking and negotiating. Jen was ok with this – although a few looked a bit too skinny for her liking.
However, in the next field over was the ‘pig department’. There the pigs were tied up like the cows, but in bunches and with less space to move. Thus, many of the animals were crying out and clearly not happy. Jen did not like this and Erwan knew that she was possibly going to try to buy a group of pigs to save, so we promptly left and decided to head back into town for the regular market.
By this time, it was in full swing – there were vendors everywhere, selling everything from traditional clothing to basic cosmetics like toothpaste. We walked along the side streets a bit making our way to the main square. Once there, we had a mission – buy a scarf for Jen (she didn’t bring one along and would need one for the colder areas of our trip) and buy a blanket for us. Yup, here we were only a little over a month in and we were going to splurge on a souvenir – and a large one at that! However, this is the place where you can get amazingly cheap soft fabrics made from alpaca wool. In fact, the American couple came up just for the market, where they buy things cheap and then sell them on in the states for 5 or 6 times the price. . . From them we were advised that a scarf should be $5-6 (although she gets them for $3.50 as she buys so many) and a blanket should be $14-$17 (again, she says she gets them for $11).
With our price advice in hand, we went to find our items – it didn’t take long. Although the market is big, after walking around for a bit, you will notice that many of the gift items have the same patterns from stall to stall (at least for the blankets and scarfs – the jewelry and woodwork items seemed a bit more one-far, however we weren’t looking at them in detail). We then get to this one stall, where the blankets were a bit more unique. In particular, there was one that was predominantly cream in colour, but then with various pastel strips of varying widths. Plus, it was super soft! Jen wanted it, so the haggling began. The woman started at $20 and Jen started with $14. It ended at $15. Sounds good, although the haggling didn’t take long, so Jen, probably could have stayed at $14 – granted, that one dollar will probably go further for the woman than Jen.
At the neighbouring stall, Jen found her scarf as well and the haggling went about the same way. The woman started at $10, Jen started at $5 and it went to $6 – again, that $1 means more to her than to Jen.
Happy with our purchases, we wandered around the rest of the market taking pictures and enjoying the environment. It interestingly wasn’t as busy as we thought, with most of the local action was taking place on the side streets.
Once we scoured the main square, we made our way back to Quito. Good thing too – although we had a beautiful blue sky while wandering the market, upon boarding the bus, the clouds rolled in and it started to rain. Sadly no nice views for us, well we kind of got this semi decent one. . .
We had too little time in Quito. I will say it here and I will say it again – Too. Little. Time. I will always hate VivaColombia for cutting our adventure in this lovely city from 3.5 days to 1.5 days.
We arrive back in Quito just before 2pm and after checking into our hotel, immediately head out to lunch, as we’re starving. Fortunately, in the neighbourhood of our hotel, there’s a highly recommended Ecuadorian place, called Achiote, so we head there. Basically, we stuffed ourselves. Ecuadorians have tons of different types of mushrooms and tons of different ways of cooking them, and since Jen rarely gets to have mushrooms (Erwan doesn’t like them and he’s the cook), she had something mushroom-y with every course. So good!
By the time we finished our mammoth Ecuadorian lunch, it was 4pm and now pouring out. Rather than start exploring the city in a downpour, we headed back to the hotel to rest, tired from stuffing ourselves. We instead would rest up and have a full and proper hypertrek the following day.
After our naps, we head out for a night stroll and basically come across a street party. It’s is a week before Quito’s celebration day (December 6th), so there are festivities everywhere. Temporary stages are up in all the squares with bands playing and there are party buses driving around full of revellers. We soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the music for a bit, before heading back to get plenty of sleep in time for our now early wake up.
7 am! Time to leave and explore the city! VivaColombia left us with too little time, so we need to go!
We hit the old town first. As it’s so early the streets are still pretty quiet (although not as much as you would have thought). Quito’s old town is magnificent – so many churches and cute little streets – plus the hills add to some great vistas up into neighbourhoods. We meander the town with Jen being trigger happy on her camera.
After our wander, we head up the neighbouring hill of Panecillo to take in the views. We take a taxi as were advised that the neighbourhood along the route is ‘peligrosso’ (plus it helps us time-wise). The views were stunning! The city is so big – it just sprawled out around the whole hill, but you still get great views to the old town and its plethora of churches.
It was also quite peaceful up there – since we arrived shortly after 9, none of the usual street hawkers were there and the tourist stands were still closed. They opened around 10, just as we were leaving. . .
We then head to the Basilica for another chance of views. And the climb to the top of the Basilica is not for the faint-hearted. While walking up the rickety staircase, Jen repeated one of her mantras to herself “do one thing everyday that scares you, do one thing everyday that scares you.”
Once at the top, we were not disappointed – see for yourself. . .
Safely down on terra firma, we head back to our hotel’s neighbourhood for another fabulous lunch. We decide to try out the city’s public transport system and thus, hopped on a bus. Fortunately, it was the right bus, but unfortunately, it got into a little fender bender with another bus enroute. The drivers got out, settled it amongst themselves and we drove on. However, during those ten minutes we were left standing on a packed, overcrowded bus that was baking in the sun. Good thing London has trained us well (except for that baking part) and we patiently waited along with everyone else.
Anyway, that fabulous lunch – this time it’s at La Cuchara de San Marcos en La Mariscal, an Ecuadorean vegetarian restaurant that serves craft beers! How exciting is that! After a lovely mushroom appetizer, Jen had one of the best veggie burgers ever – it was made with quinoa and had a soy mayo. Erwan had a version of the local delicacies, cow’s feet stew – only it used eggplant instead. The food was fantastic and the beers were too – however, sadly they weren’t Ecuadorean (Californian) – but I guess you can’t have everything. . .
Well fed, we decided to visit the equator. Here’s the tricky part though – there are three different sites outside Quito, that claim to be ‘the centre of the world’. In an ideal trip to Quito (you know where VivaColombia doesn’t mess things up for you), we’d have visited all three. This time we went to two – Mital del Mondo and the Intinan Solar Museum. Fortunately, they are pretty much right next to each other and thus, we decided to again try public transport – 2 hours and 3 buses later we got there (it didn’t help that the first bus was caught in a traffic jam following the end of the local soccer game. It was also a pretty packed bus once we picked up all the fans). . .
Anyway, of the two monuments, Mital del Mondo was a bit grander, in that it’s a huge monument.
It provided for a great equator ussie. . .
Petit George also enjoyed it. . .
However, the Intinan Solar Museum is a bit more fun as the basic tour includes a bunch of games to play on the equator. In particular, did you know that on the equator, you can balance a raw egg on the head of a nail. Watch. . .
Again, we had some selfie fun. . .
We were fortunately able to cram both visits in just before sunset and then headed back to Quito proper (this time only 1.5 hours and two buses – we improved). After such a jam packed day, dinner included snacks and beers in the hotel and then we got an early night. The next morning, we had to get up early to fly to the rainforest and we didn’t want to miss that! We spent 5 days there, but we have already written about that in our post from December 14th.
From the rainforest, we then headed to Banos, which was described to us as ‘a backpacker’s paradise’ and that it is – it’s a small, easy to navigate, little town, with plenty of outdoorsy adventures all around it. It’s cheap and there’s plenty of cafes/bars/restaurants that cater to Westerners. It’s also known a bit as a party town – and not just for tourists. On our bus ride into town, starting about an hour outside of Banos, we started picking up locals that were clearly dressed for a night out (we were arriving on Saturday night).
This party aspect is something our hostel was keen to address with signs everywhere saying “this is not a party hostel”. It sounds harsh, but the owners of the hostel were absolutely lovely – some of the best we came across thus far (I think they’ve just had a few bad guests in the past). One of the best things about the hosts is that they spoke Spanish to us, but really, really slowly, so that we could understand. It was perfect! Elsewhere, when people spoke Spanish to us (after us saying we understood a little), they would rattle off at 100 words per minute and we would understand about 4 of them. . .
We aren’t much of partiers these days, so our first night consisted of Mexican food and cervezas at a trendy little café called Casa Hood – tasty and cheap!
The next morning, after randomly witnessing the start of a local 5K run that had to be completed with your dog, we rented bikes to cycle along the Ruta De Las Cascades (route of the waterfalls).
Oh and we visited the Sunday fruit market to pick out snacks for our trip.
And it was a perfect day to do it! Nothing but blue skies and clear visibility, so we could see all the beautiful waterfalls along the way. We were told that since it was dry season, it was very low for the waterfalls, but they were still gorgeous. . .
As was the landscape in general. . .
The largest of the waterfalls is Pailon de Diablo (devil’s nose). This one can’t be seen from the cycle route and instead you must hike a couple kilometres to visit it.
You can also climb through caves to get behind the waterfall (and get drenched in the process).
Pailon de Diablo is where most cyclists catch a bus back to Banos (it was largely downhill to this point). Thinking we were fit, we decided to continue – probably not all the way to Puyo (61 km in total), but we were having such a good time, let’s go further. . .
Um, we soon realised why most people turned around there – we continued a bit downhill, but then it turned uphill. And stayed that way. For a while. Our legs were not up for this. Jen’s particularly. It got to one uphill climb, where she had had enough and decided to walk her bike up it, declaring that we would turn back at the next bus stop. Erwan knowing that such a statement was not a request, also got off the bike and started walking it.
As we got to the top of that one hill, we saw a vendor’s stand. It was selling donuts and wait, look! It’s a green gate! It was the Americans from Otavalo! We never thought we’d see them, given the somewhat vague description of their place and here they were! Well the wife was there with her children, with the husband having left that morning to handle some business in the states.
She very kindly showed us around their wonderful home with its even more wonderful surroundings. Seriously, look – this is their view from the living room. . .
After spending a bit of time chatting, rehydrating and resting, we decided to continue the route to San Francisco (which our friend advised was completely downhill from her property) and then catch a bus. Which is what we did. However, no bus would pick us up – they would slow down when they saw us, as if to pick us up, however once they saw the bikes, they’d continue giving us a hand gesture as if to say “kind of” (we’re still not sure what this hand gesture means). After waiting at that bus station almost an hour, we decide to continue downhill again (fortunately) to the larger town of Rio Negro. Yet, again a bus wouldn’t take us. Getting tired and now wanting food, we found a guy with a truck that takes us back to town for the same fare as a taxi. Exhausted we went for comfort food for dinner – pizza (but stone oven backed so really good!).
Oh and we made a video of the day! Our first gopro video of the trip. . .
We only have one more full day in Banos and there’s so much to do! Firstly, we wake up early and catch the 5:45 bus up the mountain to visit the Casa del Arbol, which is basically a large swing along the mountainside.
We went early to avoid the crowds (it was just us and a couple from South Africa there). However, as it was so early, it was quite cloudy (no good sunrise), which still made for some atmospheric shots, however after posting one to Facebook, we realised that it looks like Erwan is blowing black smoke out of his ass. Jen can now not unsee it. . .
Back in town, we headed to the hot springs, for which the town got its name. The complex is like many in Europe where it’s organised by separate pools and you must wear a bathing cap. The water is also quite mineral rich – it tasted a bit like a penny.
While the pools were relaxing, the complex was not as nice as many we have been to and given that it’s a built complex, not as atmospheric as others, such as those previously visited on this trip in Boquete, Panama. That being said, a new larger complex was being built next door, so maybe in a year or two, it’ll be amazing. . .
In the afternoon, we headed out for our big adventure of the day – paragliding! Neither of us had ever done it, so we were both really excited/nervous. We booked through one of the local tour companies and were joined by two others (also Londoners – we’re everywhere). During the hour’s drive through the mountains to the paragliding stop, we got to know our fellow travellers – long-time friends, they were travelling around South America for 6 months as he made his way to Australia, where he was moving to (having just secured a visa) and she was joining him for the journey (sans Australia part).
We get to the paragliding spot and it’s perfect – beautiful skies and a clear view of Tungurahua Volcano. Ready to paraglide, Erwan goes first! He takes off in a matter of seconds and 20 minutes later lands with a huge grin on his face saying “Amazing! Amazing!”.
OK, Jen’s ready to go. But the paragliding guide takes up the London girl. She lands, but doesn’t seem pleased – she didn’t enjoy it. Oh now Jen’s back to being nervous – what if she also doesn’t like it? What if she drops her 360 camera? Not only would she lose it, but it could hit someone and kill them! What if she just drops, full stop?
Fortunately, the guide takes the London guy up next and he lands, saying “fantastic, wonderful!” Jen’s ready again and now there’s only her to go! And she’s off and she loves it! It’s quite the adrenaline rush at first – but not in a scary way. More in a ‘I’m sitting in a comfy chair, floating through the air, looking at a volcano’ kind of way (if that makes any sense). And Jen didn’t drop her 360 camera! Nor her phone!
In conclusion, we both loved paragliding and are so happy that we tried it out – definitely one of the best experiences so far on the trip. And how would you end a day like this? Well, whenever Jen does outdoorsy activities in the mountains (usually skiing), she craves fondue and that is what she wanted. Banos did not disappoint! Given that the town caters to Westerners, there was a Swiss fondue place (appropriately called Swiss Bistro) and Jen could not be happier. . .
Sadly, we left Banos, but we headed to Cuenca, a place that we had heard further good things about. It’s a cute little town (a UNESCO heritage site), which also caters to westerners (although apparently more the American retiree type that want a beautiful, cheap place to live out their golden years).
Thanks to an 8-hour bus journey, we get to Cuenca in the early evening, with the major tasks being to find dinner (check) and a pharmacy. Somehow in Banos, Jen got some sort of lip thing – her bottom lip was swollen, a bit crusty and stinging like hell. We had no idea what it was, but upon finding a pharmacy and showing it to the pharmacist, he knew exactly what to do. A box of antibiotics and a tube of lip cream later, we had successfully managed our first medical issue of the trip (and it was healed only days later).
We spent a full day exploring Cuenca, which was lovely – there’s a fantastic three domed cathedral (UNESCO),
cute little streets to stroll along,
and a sombrero museum, which is 2 parts shop, 1 part museum.
We also found a great little Ecuadorean café for lunch (full of said American retirees), a fantastic restaurant in an old courtyard for dinner and a hot chocolate bar for desert. Yes, you read that correctly. Cuenca has a bar that specialises in hot chocolate – just the place for Jen. The menu was extensive and we decided to order the hot chocolate with mozzarella (interesting), the hot chocolate with chili and rum (already know it will be good) and a chocolate cake (classic).
Thing is there was something lost in translation (which we should have known from the confused look on the waiter), because instead of the chocolate cake, we just ordered another basic hot chocolate. So, yea, we got three mugs of cocoa. Also, the hot chocolate with mozzarella, was a bit disappointing as the cheese was just served on the side (Jen was hoping for some kind of cheesy chocolate liquid concoction).
All were still very tasty though. . .
Unlike Banos and Cuenca, we hadn’t heard good things about Guayaquil, with many people who have been telling us to miss it altogether. Thing is, our onward flight was leaving from Guayaquil, so we had to get there at some point and might as well check out the city – particularly since Jen read about a park where there are tons of iguanas – so many that they fall out of trees! Iguana park was a must!
Needless to say, with all our fun-ness elsewhere, we did indeed leave little time for Guayaquil. Our bus from Cuenca (which the view consisted of mountains and then fields and fields of cocoa) dropped us in the city early afternoon, with our flight leaving the next morning.
That’s plenty of time of iguanas, so off to Parque de Seminario (it’s official title)! At first when we arrived, Jen was a bit disappointed – she didn’t see tons of iguanas. But we had entered from the wrong side apparently, because as we walked through the park, suddenly there they were. On the paths, on the grass, in the trees, yup everywhere.
And there were some clever little old ladies who knew a market when they saw one. They were selling bags of chopped up lettuce for tourists to feed the animals – basically for the price of an actual head of lettuce, they probably got 8 bags worth – good business.
And of course, Jen fell for it, so with bag of lettuce in hand, Jen befriended a few iguanas.
And got a great money shot. . .
Although, Jen was never as cool as this little girl, who made one her pet. . .
After spending what Erwan thought was way too long in iguana park, we headed out to see the rest of the town. Well, really we just walked along Las Ramblas – the promenade along the beach where there was a Christmas market, Santa, etc. Given the temperature and the waterfront setting, it was a bit of a strange sight for us. . .
And for dinner on our last night in Ecuador? We found a surf themed café/bar, where the food was ok (we can’t really remember what we had there now), but with great juices.
Oh, that reminds us! We haven’t even talked about all the amazing fruits and juices in Ecuador! Or the pavement patterns! Jen hasn’t told you about the pavement patterns!
Seriously the place is going to keep us going with stories and memories for years. The above is just quick snapshots of everything we did/saw (and yet it’s still quite a long post).
Ecuador, you convinced us and we will be back!
Oh and here’s one last iguana. . .