The last leg of my journey, Ecuador! This relatively compact country in South America has a lot to offer. Although I didn’t start of that well, it eventually turned out to be very promising and enjoyable.
Southern Ecuador; Cuenca, Baños and Salinas
The night bus I took from Huanchaco to Cuenca turned out to be so uncomfortable that I experienced a tremendous pain in my back like never before. The night bus got us to Cuenca, by crossing the borders near Tumbes. At arrival in Cuenca I was doubting to go the hospital or see a doctor because of my back. Luckily this pain cleared a bit out after an hour. Then, I had another challenge to face. Getting the taxi from the bus terminal to my hostel. By seeing that many taxi’s come and go I thought it would be easy getting one, but they just drove past me and paid no attention to me. It took literally 2 hours to get a taxi. At first, I thought the taxi drivers had some racial remarks. Then I came to notice that for the first time I experienced in South America, taxi drivers actually drive with an official meter. When a tourist comes with a big backpack, they can’t charge them extra. Placing a big backpack in the trunk of the car and trying to communicate would take some extra time, which costs them, even though a tiny amount, money. Eventually when my back recovered a little, I walked into the direction of the hostel until a taxi would give me a ride. I think I started off on the wrong foot with Ecuador, because things got only better from here. Cuenca, for instance, is voted as Ecuador’s most beautiful city. It has a relative big historical center compared to its size (over 300.000 inhabitants). You can see much of it by taking a walking tour, which would provide you with some information as well. For instance, in what is now known as Cuenca, two Inca brothers (Huáscar and Atahuallpa) fought a civil war. This battle had so many casualties that this made it much easier for the Spanish to conquer. The museum ‘Pumapungo’ is founded on the site of the old city and you can see some small remains. However, the best part of this museum is indoors which tells all about the different tribes that lives or used to live in Ecuador. Besides that, this museum, like most museum in Ecuador, is run by the government and therefore free. Only downside is that most of the information is only available in Spanish. To soak in some nature, an excellent day trip from Cuenca is going to Cajas National Park. Cuenca is surrounded by beautiful landscapes. Cajas is located between 3100 and 4450 meters altitude. So just make sure to pack some warm and waterproof clothes. I definitely needed them!
After Cuenca, I headed to Baños. This is a small touristic town know for, as their name states, natural baths. The road that took me there turned out to be quite interesting, because I did see Chimborazo (the highest mountain in the world when measured from the center of the earth) for the first time. And it gives a quite impressive view as well. A popular thing to do is to rent a bike and visit multiple waterfalls along the way. You can rent bikes from about five dollars a day. The main road will mostly go down, you can stop at several occasions and it is easy for self-guidance. Not only to view the waterfalls, also zip-lining, eating local sweets and renting a buggy are all available options along the road. And of course, you can’t leave Baños without trying at least one of their different relaxing baths. First, I tried a more fancy one. This had about 5 different baths, a small sauna and water slides. This costed about six to seven dollars. The other day, I went to a cheaper one (about two dollars) in the early morning. In contrast of the other, here you can find a lot of locals, making an early morning conversation and gossip.
From Baños, a sudden decision took me to Salinas. I read a little bit about this place in the Lonely Planet and went looking online as well, when it got my interest. This town has just about 1000 inhabitants, but is known for their entrepreneurship. No less than 90 business are located in the community. Some of them even exporting their products to Europe. One of my favorite is their chocolate (yummy!). You can explore these businesses by yourself, or, as I did, take a local guide for a tour. Salinas is located on an altitude of 3300 meters. Being this high, you are often overlooking the clouds which are formed beneath you. Just a little behind the town you can make an easy hike in a beautiful located valley. And if you are a little more adventurous you can try to hike to the next village (although there are no clear walking paths). Mostly in the end of the afternoon, you will find people playing volleyball on the main square. With balls they produce themselves of course!
Chimborazo & Quilotoa Loop
My next stop will be Latacunga, where I would start my highlight of Ecuador; The Quilotoa Loop. But the beautiful Chimborazo caught my attention, I just wanted to visit this (dead) volcano. I made sure to make a stop here on the way from Salinas to Latacunga. The park that surrounds this volcano is free of entrance. However, getting to the refuge camp is not an easy task. Especially if you have only a few hours to spare. So I rented a guide who will get me to 4800 meters altitude with his jeep. At this point you will find the first refuge camp. From here you can walk another 300 meters up to the second one. 300 meters doesn’t sound much, but it can take you an hour to get there. The snow starts to form just behind the second refuge camp. And the peak seems quite close by. Clouds can form weirdly over this mountain, as they tend do dance around the peak. Therefore it is also uncertain if you are able to see the peak at all. But luckily for me it did appear at some times. I felt glad to have visited Chimborazo and saw the highest peak in the world (measured from the center of the earth). Later, I continued with the bus to Latacunga.
I would only spent one night in Latacunga and start the Quilotoa Loop the day after. You can start the Quilotoa Loop in two different directions. I choose to start at a lower altitude and make my way up from there to arrive at the Laguna Quilotoa two days later. For this route, you need to take the bus to a village called Sigchos. From here you can start your hike and will end your first day in Isinlivi. Four hours later and having enjoyed a beautiful hike, I reached Isinlivi. Here you can stay in a beautiful new hostel called ‘Llu Llu Lama’. For about 20 dollars you get a bed in a dorm with an excellent dinner (taking all diets into account) and breakfast. On top of that, you can relax in their little spa and participate morning and/or afternoon yoga classes. The second day I woke up early to participate at the morning yoga at 7:00. An hour later breakfast was served and would start the hike immediately after. This time I hiked to Chugchilán, a village located on 3200 meters altitude. I had to descent in the valley first, to climb 600 meters after. Although there are many warnings online that it can be freezing cold at this hike, I only experienced hot days in the sun. The third and final day was the hardest one. I had to hike 800 meters upward to get to the edge of the crater at Laguna Quilotoa crater. It felt very rewarding to see this impressive lake after three days hiking. But it turned out that I wasn’t finished yet. I had to hike for another hour around the lake to reach the village and get the bus back to Latacunga. From my experience, the Quilotoa Loop isn’t something you can miss once you are in Ecuador. It’s beautiful to hike on the countryside and easy for self-guidance.
San Juan de Llumán & Quito
After the Quilotoa Loop I stayed one more night in Latacunga before heading north. I wanted to stay in Otavalo first (because of the markets), but than saw a cozy budget place called ‘El Tio’. This was located in the next village to Otavalo, San Juan de Llumán. In order to get to this place, I had to pass Quito. This turned out to be quite sketchy. From Latacunga I arrived in the south terminal of Quito where I bought my ticket to Otavalo. Here, I got into an empty bus. A guy who was ‘working’ on the bus assigned me to another seat than I initially bought and told me to put my small backpack on top (above the seats). With my previous experience, I refused to let my backpack out of sight. He later told that it is illegal to put your backpack in front of your legs, but I still refused. We found middle ground to put the backpack under the seat. Because of the previous experience, I placed my legs through the backpack. Danick did the same. But later she felt something pulling on here leg. When I looked around that same guy was quickly moving backwards into his seat again. From here on I got more aware. He changed seats often which looks suspicious. It became even more suspicious when four big-build guys came into the bus. Two of them went sitting right behind me, and, after a little while, right in front of me. The guy in front with the seat next to the hallway checked if the seats where fine and opened the window. But with every of those actions he looked at our stuff and later to me, smiling. I understood at that moment that these guys were really up to something. Just to be sure I removed my memory card from my camera. Just before I arrived at the northern terminal of Quito they got off. I think I was lucky that I didn’t got robbed this time (and quite happy not to have experienced a forced robbery). But only because of my previous experience I became more aware. From the northern terminal in Quito a lot of more people came into the bus and the atmosphere felt way better.
Seeing sunset from the bus over the volcanos with dense clouds, I arrived in San Juan de Llumán. Still needed to hike another 15 minutes to get to the hostel. ‘Tio’, the owner, gave me a warm welcome at his place, which looked even more rural than I imagined. He showed me around his area and explained the different trees from which leaves teas could be made. From this location I went to a waterfall ‘cascade de peguche’ were locals have spiritual/religious events. In the evening I socialized with fellow travelers at the hostel, some of who stayed for over eight months at this place. Because this place had such an authentic vibe you can feel immediately if this is a place for you. I also visited the famous Otavalo artisanal cloth market. This is a well known place for locals as well for tourists to buy souvenirs. The next and, sadly, final stop of my journey through South America is Quito. Here I would spent my last four days before flying home to Holland.
After spending the morning in the market of Otavalo, I arrived in Quito later that afternoon. In the evening Danick and I had dinner with Cynthia, a girl who Danick met during her time in Santiago. After dinner she drove us around some nice areas of Quito. A thing which I noticed during this drive is that the city almost looked deserted on a Saturday night. The next day I went to the park El Ejido and to the Museo Nacional afterwards. This is a pretty interesting museum to go to. With free entrance, a modern lay-out and covered much of local pre-Columbian history. On the third day in Quito I started the morning with a free walking tour. This high quality tour took about three hours and covered much of the historic center of the city. Quito is known for its big historic center and was also, alongside with Krakow, the first listed city by UNESCO. Because it was Monday, I witnessed the change of guards at the central square. This event happens every Monday. Normally the president will appear as well to wave in front of the crowd. Unfortunately for us, the president didn’t appear. After soaking in a lot of information about the city and the country in general I got back to the hotel, rested for a little while, before going to the thermal baths ‘cascade de baños’. This was about 1,5-2 hour drive. Getting out of Quito and see the landscape transforming to a beautiful cloud forest is very rewarding. Located on 3000 meters altitude, this place got pretty cold during night time. Luckily the baths were warm and it was very relaxed to spent there about three hours. At the final full day, I went with the teleferico up the mountain. From about 2500 meters this teleferico will bring you up to 4000 meters altitude for 8,5 dollars. From here you have beautiful views over the city and the possibility to hike to the top of volcano ‘Rucu Pichincha’ nearby. Unfortunately I didn’t got the time to hike fully to the top (4696 meters), but could still enjoy the views. I ended this evening with a nice last supper in South America.
The following morning it was time to return. Danick and I got picked-up by Cynthia, who was so nice to bring us to the airport. The last four months had been wonderful experience. Exciting and a bit scary at first, but rewarding in so many ways. Seeing unbeatable landscapes, hiking between zero and 5000 meters above sea level and meeting very interesting people and places along the way. My backpack with most valuable belongs got stolen along the way which is of course not the best experience. But I learned much from this and other negative experiences as well. I felt a little sad leaving South America and head back to the Netherlands. Luckily my family is waiting there for me and it feels good to spent some time with them again.