Ecuador: Our Travel Journal

A FEW THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO…

  • No one really talks about it, but the crime rate in Quito is actually pretty high (take it from someone who got robbed). It’s pretty common for them to reach under your bus seat from the back and slit your bag with a razor blade while someone else distracts you. Beware!
  • Ecuador is a relatively easy place to travel to, even if you’re not a big international traveler. They are on the dollar and most people speak English and there are loads of expats living in Cuenca.
  • You can travel to the Galapagos Islands fairly inexpensively if you aren’t on a tight timeline. Apartments and hostels on the islands are plentiful and cheap and you can get great deals on last minute boat trips if they aren’t full. And you can negotiate the price if you are there in-person as opposed to booking online.

WHEN WE WENT…

July 2013

WHERE WE WENT… 

Montanita: 

We were somewhat sad to leave the beautiful weather and warm water in Mancora but excited to cross the border into Ecuador and visit Montanita which we had heard was a fun backpacker town with good surfing. It was described as being similar to Mancora but even more of a party town. Sounded good to us so we boarded a night bus and arrived early the next morning.

I’ve noticed that my opinions on various towns that we visit depend fairly heavily depending on the weather during the time we visit. If a town has sunny weather I tend to love it, if there’s rain, I’m less inclined to stay and check out all the sights. The weather in Montanita while we were there was overcast and dismal which was fairly disappointing and I suspect we would have had a better time if the weather was better. I found the town to be dirty… I was often required to dodge dog poo or the occasional street rat. There were smelly, dirty hippies selling their wares all over the small town and the food vendors sold corn on the cob that was slathered in mayo and cheese (foul). To top it off, we happened to pick a hostel, Hostal Pakaloro, that was on a particularly loud street with outdoor cocktail vendors bumping party music until wee hours of the morning. Coming off a long, crazy weekend in Mancora, Nick and I were not really in the mood to rage.

On the plus side, the surfing conditions were amazing. Long waves with sandy beach breaks meant challenging surfing for Nick and whitewash surfing for me. It was great fun but somehow the water currents were frigid again (what’s with water this close to the equator being so cold?).

After a few days of surfing and hoping the weather would improve, we decided to check the weather in other areas of Ecuador and found that it was dismal across the board. We made a last minute decision to try our luck in the Galapagos Islands so we said adios to Montanita and crossed our fingers for some sunshine.

Galagapos (San Cristobal): 

We booked a fairly last minute flight to the Galapagos after finding that the weather in most of Ecuador was less than desirable and we chose the island of San Cristobal mainly because of the price. Most people tend to fly into Santa Cruz because it is more central to the other islands but we figured we had enough time to get around and explore the area. When we arrived at the airport we were greeted by Danny who wanted us to rent his apartment instead of staying in a hostel as we had previously planned and he offered to drive us there and even give us a tour of the island. This is generally a bit of a risk… if the apartment is dismal it can be difficult to say no to a person who’s just gone out of their 1048885_10152996932310624_584526255_oway to help you out. But we decided to give it a go. On the way to the apartment he generously offered to take us to a beach and let us use his snorkel gear and he pointed out the best restaurants (all of which served soup, chicken, and rice… staples in South America). The apartment was a bit out of the way and smelled like a hospital but I liked the idea of the free snorkel trip so we decided to stay there anyway.

As promised, Danny took us to a “beach” which was more like a big rock with some stairs leading to the water. We didn’t take into account how cold the water would be and without wet suits it was no bueno so we spent all of 5 minutes snorkeling. It was a nice little area though so we took some time to explore and found a great beach that was crowded with lounging sea lions. We spent the rest of the afternoon sun bathing and taking thousands of pictures of silly sea lions waddling around the beach.
The next day we decided to take a tour of the highlands so we hired a taxi to show us around. It was $50 for the day and we were so happy to have chosen this route over going with a tour group. We visited the lagoon at the top of one of the volcanoes, “Tarzan’s house” which is a giant tree house which is available to rent, a giant tortoise breeding facility, and a lovely secluded beach that was perfect for body boarding. Our taxi driver was awesome… he picked us fresh fruit along the way and was always making us take the strangest pictures. At the giant tortoise breeding facility he started the trek by telling us not to get too close or touch any of the animals but when no one was around he would say “quick, go pose with that turtle and pet it!” Of course he didn’t speak a lick of English so that was loosely translated. Needless to say we broke pretty much every rule of the facility… oops.

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My goal of this international trip was to continually knock things off my bucket list and one of the things I’d always wanted to try but never had the opportunity was scuba diving. So that evening as we were pursuing the tour agencies we found a place that did “discovery dives”. Essentially you do one short scuba lesson and then snorkel the rest of the time. Nick had done one dive before many years ago and so he was game to get another lesson with me. We ended up being the only two people doing the discovery dive… the others on our boat were either only snorkeling or doing the more serious scuba dives. So Nick and I had the instructor all to ourselves which would have been great if I spoke Spanish or if he spoke English. He gave us a brief overview and then had us go into the water (well, he pushed me off the side of the boat into the water). I was horrified. Not only did I have no clue what I was doing but I was also terrified of being so far from fresh air. I lasted for about 5 minutes before I made the executive decision to surface and head back to the boat which Nick chose to continue with the dive. Sounds like he had a good time, good for him. I got a nose bleed and lost any desire I may have had previously to get my open water certification.

The rest of the trip was pretty fun. We cruised around on the boat, had some beach time, and did a snorkel through the canal at Kicker Rock where we saw loads of hammerhead sharks and a few sting rays. The guides promised us that the sharks only ate at night so we were perfectly safe… hmmmm…

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Galagapos (Santiago): 

We traveled from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz by boat which took about 2 hours. We had planned on securing a hostel and then deciding what to do from there. On our way to book a hostel we stopped by a travel agency that boasted good prices on last minute tours and found a 4 day/3 night trip that was leaving that afternoon. After some shrewd negotiation skills by yours truly, we got a sweet deal and booked it. The tour agency was called Lonesome George which I would NOT recommend… the snorkeling fin they rented Nick was cracked from day one but we didn’t notice until we were already on the boat. When we returned the gear, Honest Nick told them about it and they charged us! I tried to talk some sense into the owner and he hung up on me. No bueno. However, the boat that we took was called the Darwin and it was great; good crew, amazing food, and good information along the way.

Day one started by us boarding the boat around 1pm to get our things on board and settle into our room. From there we took a highlands tour of Santa Cruz which included visiting a property where giant Galapagos tortoises hang out and eat all day. We got to see some huge tortoises but unfortunately our guide wasn’t as cool as our taxi driver from a few days ago and he had a strict “stay 2 meters from the animals” policy.

Most days our boat tour started off with an early breakfast and some activities like hikes around various islands and snorkeling trips. The snorkeling was great fun even though the water was freezing. We had a sea lion showing off for us for a bit, we saw several penguins chasing fish, and Nick and I had a private swim sesh with a sea turtle which was probably the highlight of the trip for me. We also got to see loads of beautiful fish and starfish.

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Our island trips usually involved us trying to spot iguanas, blue-footed boobies (yes, that’s their actual name), sea lions, and other animals that are indigenous to the Galapagos. Our guide was Omar or “Senior Galapagos” as I preferred to call him (he didn’t look like an Omar) and he was a serious tour guide by day, funny entertainment by night. He told us all about the volcanoes on the islands, the animals that inhibit them, and about all the native plants. Unfortunately, humans have been the most unkind to the islands; introducing non-native animals like goats and non-native plants to the islands and trampling the areas that were virtually untouched for so long. Only 3% of the islands are permitted to be inhabited and that the national park service is diligent in protecting the wildlife which is pretty impressive.

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While the boat tour was fairly regimented and regulated (there are loads of rules in the Galapagos which is great for the islands but sometimes sad for me when I want to take home a baby giant Galapagos tortoise), it was a great time and we met fun new friends on the boat. I was only seasick on our last night and that was because they pumped us full of shrimp, cake, and sugary cocktails and then took us on a bumpy 3-hour ride to our final destination. We were sad to have to leave the boat on the last day and say goodbye to our fun new friends; we contemplated becoming stowaways but figured we’d seen enough frigates and boobies to last us a lifetime.

Galagapos (Puerto Ayora): 

What better way to round out an amazing trip to the Galapagos Islands than trying to kill some fish? Deep sea fishing has always been intriguing to Nick and I went fishing once in Alaska so obviously I am practically a pro so we set out to find a tour. Turns out there aren’t a lot of people doing fishing tours in the Galapagos (okay, there’s only one guy doing tours… Moab), and we arrived right before high season so there weren’t a lot of tourists looking to go fishing. So we finally convinced Moab to take us deep sea fishing for a price that we could swallow (barely).

We started bright and early at 7am and headed to the dock armed with a case of beer and high spirits. Moab predicted that the best times to catch tuna would be around 7:30am and 11:30am. He was fairly accurate. We dropped 3 fishing lines at around 7:20 and began to troll around the ocean and maybe 20 or 30 minutes later we got a bite! Moab had me reel the fish in which proved to be a real challenge. I finally managed to get the HUGE tuna to the surface and they proceeded to hook it and then stab it in the head while it shook viciously. Horrifying. They then used half of the tuna to make fresh sashimi and ceviche for us to enjoy on the boat and saved the other half to be grilled for dinner by a local restaurant.

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The rest of the boat trip was great fun; we trolled along and enjoyed the sun and drank our cervezas but unfortunately didn’t catch any more fish. Moab tried to end our trip a bit early (he originally promised 6 hours) and I’m a stickler so I held him to his original promise and earned the nickname “loco” (crazy). Okay, maybe I had a bit of a tantrum but I paid a lot of money for that tour!

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We then met Moab later in the evening to enjoy the rest of our catch along with some cocktails. Even later he took us to his favorite discotheque for more drinks and dancing. Turns out Moab is quite the ladies man and was tearing up the dance floor with his mock fishing dance moves. We stayed out too late considering we had a 7am boat to catch the next morning back to San Cristobal but it was a great way to end a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Cuenca: 

Cuenca was a lovely little town full of old gringos who have moved there to retire. It seems that the proximity to the states, the low cost of housing and the fact that Ecuador is on the US dollar are all factors that attract retirees looking for a place to settle down. We went on runs around the river every day, hiked in El Cajas National Park, and visited the hot springs in the nearby town of Banos. We found out quickly that Sunday’s turn Cuenca into a ghost town; largely due to the law that establishments cannot serve any alcohol all day. We enjoyed the laid back pace of the town and attempted to enjoy the microbrewery although the beer was sub par. All and all our visit was short and sweet but we managed to fit in the typical popular tourist attractions for the area.

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El Cajas National Park views

Banos: 

Why name a town after a bathroom? Based on the name I figured Banos may be a 1048291_10153017941110624_380186321_odump… however it turned out to be a quaint little town with quaint little hostels and loads of outdoor adventures for enthusiasts. We started our tour of the town with a  hike up to the town of Runtun which was short but straight uphill. The views of Banos at the top of the hill were fantastic. Our plan at the top was to either hike or hitchhike to the restaurant at the top to watch sunset. We were lucky to have a sweet Ecuadorian couple from Quito drive by and offer to give us a lift. The “restaurant” at the top wasn’t so much a restaurant as the house belonging to a crazy man who gave us a long lecture about volcanoes. Apparently the volcano above Banos is quite active and he stays at his house during eruptions; he just wears an oxygen mask when required. We got to take advantage of his tree house and swing that sits on the edge of a cliff to take in the magnificent sunset. Our new friends even bought us a beer and then gave us a ride back to town!

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Rope swing off the side of a cliff

To continue our adventurous Banos spirit we decided to do a waterfall road bike trip which was mainly downhill but passed by 7 or so waterfalls. The t980276_10153017987250624_1037644079_orip was fun but we followed a fairly busy road and drivers in South America don’t seem as concerned with the safety of bikers as they are in the US. Needless to say there were a few times I assumed I would be flattened by a semi-truck. Along the way we stopped for a zipline adventure which was a kilometer long… apparently the longest in Ecuador.

 

1048942_10153017958635624_1594302606_oWhen we got to the largest and most popular waterfall, most people chose to catch a ride back but we chose to continue on. We ended up in a small town where apparently all of the locals were trying to get rides into Banos as well; it took us about an hour to get someone to pick us up.

 

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After all of our physical exertion, we decided to spend our last full day in Banos at Luna Runtun which is a hotel overlooking the town that has numerous thermal pools. For $30 per person we got dinner and 3 hours of rest and relaxation in the pools. It was the perfect way to end an adventurous trip.

Quilotoa Loop:

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The Quilotoa Loop hike is a trek that starts with a bus ride from Latacunga and takes you through several towns; Tigua, Saquisili, Quilotoa, and Isinlivi are the most popular stops and most people do it in 4 days. I was excited for this trek because the hikes are moderate; 4-7 hours per day, and instead of camping you stop in towns and stay in hostels. That seemed much more appealing than our usual style of treks which involve camping in the cold and no hot water.

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We started in Latacunga which is a dumpy town but a necessary stop as we needed trekking information from our hostel and the bus to our first stop left from there. Our plan was to start in Tigua and end in Saquisili which has a well known live animal market held every Thursday; the day we planned to end our hike. The hike from Tigua to Quilotoa is not a popular one because the trail is hard to follow and the lady at our hostel informed us that we would need a local guide. Bah, we thought; we can follow some simple instructions and find out own way. Turns out there is a good reason most people skip that leg and take the bus straight to Quilotoa; the trail is really hard to follow and the directions are confusing. After a few missteps we finally got on our way. The trail took us to the bottom of a deep canyon and back up a steep, sandy hill which was probably the most challenging and frustrating hour hike of my life. For every two steps up we slid one step back down.
After a long day of hiking we finally reached the Quilotoa crater which was a lagoon in the middle of it that locals believe has no bottom (in reality it is estimated to be about 250 meters deep). We took a necessary break for a photo shoot and then hiked the remainder of the way to the town of Quilotoa where we grabbed the first hostel we saw and promptly ordered cold beers.

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The rest of the trek was fairly similar but we did pick up a hiking buddy, Max, along the way. During our hikes Max would entertain us with his stories of being in the Peace Corps and living in a hut in El Salvador with no running water and bats. In the evenings we would stumble into the next town and find a room for the 3 of us at a hostel (they ran around $12-15 per night and included breakfast AND dinner). The highlight of our hostel adventures was a stay at Mama Hilda’s; judging from the pictures that were hung on the walls we took Mama Hilda to be a cranky old spinster but to our amusement she turned out to be a darling little old lady. We first attempted to stay at the Black Sheep Hotel which boasted a water slide, hot tub and sauna. Turns out they need 7 (7!) hours notice to prep the hot tub and sauna and the water slide had no water and emptied into a cold, dirty pond. We passed on the water slide and stayed at Mama Hilda’s instead… it was a good choice.

On our fourth day we caught the 4am local bus to Saquisili to visit the live animal market. The market took up several blocks and had everything from fruits and vegetables, restaurants, touristy goods, menders, and people hawking guinea pigs, chickens, sheep, puppies, fish and more. The market was entertaining but I was exhausted and not interested in purchasing livestock so we stayed a few hours and then headed back to Latacunga.

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It was during our fateful 2-hour bus ride from Latacunga to Quito that the man sitting behind my seat slashed my backpack while I dozed off for no more than 10 minutes and he stole my iPad and camera. So unfortunately even though our trekking adventure was great, it ended on a sad note and has forever tainted my memory of the Quilotoa Loop.

Quito:

If you are reading this blog in order, you already know that my backpack was slashed on the 2-hour bus ride to Quito and my iPad and camera were stolen. So our time in Quito began with me crying in a very lovely hostel bed while watching Johnny Suede (BAD movie!). Fortunately after a good cry I got it out of my system and moved on in less than 24 hours.

QuitoQuito is a lovely city filled with more cathedrals than one would ever need to visit in a lifetime. We limited ourselves to two; one being the Basilica del Voto Nacional which is a beautiful old building with stairs that lead up to a lookout with views of the entire city. It was definitely worth the climb. We stayed one night in old town but found that everything closed early… we couldn’t even find a restaurant open at 9pm for dinner. The next day we moved to the area called Mariscal which we found to be a bit more lively and with a younger crowd.
During our days in Quito we not only visited cathedrals but also several museums; one being the home of Oswaldo Guayasamin who is a famous Ecuadorian artist and I fell in love with his paintings. On the way back from the museum we drove by a large park with vendors lining the streets selling original paintings and their own copies of originals… of course I had to stop. I can never resist an open market. I found an artist’s rendition of a painting I’d had my eye on for some time and Nick found an original painting that he had to have.

Nick was curious to check out Cotopaxi Volcano while in Quito and originally suggested we hike a portion of it. After our long trek around the Quilotoa Loop my response was first laughter and then a firm “NO”. As a compromise we decided to take a bike tour which starts near the top and is primarily downhill. Unfortunately the tour company neglected to mention that the top of the volcano is freezing cold and crazy windy. I was totally unprepared in my Nike running pants and light jacket. Luckily there was a nice fellow in our tour group with extra pants that he was willing to share. The ride was fun and beautiful and unlike our Death Road experience, I was not the inexperienced biker at least 10 minutes behind the rest of the group; I kept pace and didn’t fall or make a fool out of myself (win!).

Mindo:

MindoMindo was a random town to visit… I had thought it was recommended to me by a nice couple we met in Banos who described it as a hot springs paradise. Upon further review I found that I was wrong (weird, I know), as there are no hot springs in Mindo. However, through my research I found a hostel that offered tree houses for rent and I’ve always wanted to stay in a proper tree house. So we decided to take a short trip. Our tree house was amazing; beautiful views and our own jacuzzi bathtub which provided us with hours of entertainment when I mistakenly put all four bottles of bubble bath in the water as opposed to the recommended ONE bottle. There ended up being about one inch of water and four feet of bubbles.
Mindo is apparently a popular place for bird and butterfly watching so we decided to take advantage by visiting a butterfly farm. The farm was breeding huge, beautiful butterflies called Caligo’s which have wings that resemble the eye of an owl on the bottom and the face of a snake at the top in order to ward off predators. Our guide showed me how to lure them onto your finger with a little rotten banana.

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We also took a short rafting trip through small rapids on a particularly cold day (the weather was amazing every other day during our stay) and I let out girlie yelps every time the frigid river water splashed me. The rest of our time in Mindo was spent running or relaxing in the pool, hot tub or steam room. It was a lovely, relaxing trip and I was happy to check “sleep in a tree house” off my bucket list.

IN HINDSIGHT…

Ecuador seemed to be an incredibly popular destination for Americans and it was easy to see why – they are on the US dollar, most people speak English, it’s fairly easy to get around, and it’s a fairly short flight from the East Coast. But it seems that unfortunately the crime rate against tourists is increasing (after we were robbed we heard loads of other similar stories) so keep your wits about you! It’s definitely not on my list of favorite countries that I’ve visited but the Galapagos Islands are epic and most certainly worth the trip!

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