Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 4 Weeks
Ecuador has most definitely earned itself a favourite stamp in my book! The landscape is utterly beautiful. Volcanoes, mountains, craters, valleys, lakes, The Galapagos Islands – Ecuador really does have it all, and it probably has the best of it, for what I’ve seen. It’s spectacular.
Travellers I had met en route said that Ecuador was the country that surprised them the most – it is very much a well-kept secret, and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited in the world.
From Colombia we travelled to Ecuador by land, via Popayan and Ipiales, crossing the border and catching a bus direct to Otavalo.
These are my highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
In Ecuador the land is sacred and the environment protected. The culture and spirituality resonated most in Otavalo. We couldn’t have had a more beautiful introduction to the country.
Otavalo is a largely indigenous town in the North of Ecuador, surrounded by the peaks of the Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Mojanda volcanoes. Imbabura is of significant importance to the local culture and considered the sacred protector of the region. On the western slope, an area of loose earth perfectly resembles a heart. This area, known as the “heart of the mountain” is much beloved by residents and appears in local art depicting the volcano. The area is said to be enchanted, as no human nor animal has been capable of scaling or hiking across it.
The indigenous Otavalenos are most famous for weaving textiles, which are sold at the famous Saturday market, considered one of the most important markets in the Andes.
Places to Stay
Around $26 a night for a large double private room with private bathroom. Decent Wifi, nice, homely communal areas including a garden, library and a living area with fireplace make this a home away from home.
Things to See and Do
Ave. Amazonas N23-23 y Veintimilla, Otavalo, Ecuador.
Although the largest market is on Saturday, there are plenty of market stalls and shops selling all sorts of crafts and textiles throughout the week in the Plaza de los Ponchos.
During the market’s peak, most of the town's streets fill with stalls selling textiles, jewellery, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous clothes, wool, handicraft and street food. Be sure to bag yourself an Alpaca scarf - all sizes, colours and patterns and under $10!
Hike the nearby Laguna Cuicocha
Located at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano, west of the Chota River, this extinct eroded volcano is best known for its deep crater lake and two lava islands. Absolutely gutted we didn’t have time to explore this lake and its mystical surroundings but you can’t do it all, and hey it gives me a great reason to return. Enquire at your hostel for information on how to get there. You can hike independently.
Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop
We were lucky enough to visit a factory where a family produce thousands of beautiful Alpaca scarfs for a company based in Holland – Bufandy. Our good friend Dorien, founder and director of Bufandy offered us a guided tour of her workshops, which sadly are not open to the public, however, there are many weavers in Otavalo who offer tours.
The tours offered by the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop are rated highly on Trip Advisor.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
There are plenty of options for eating out in Otavalo. Just check Trip Advisor for a list of recommendations. These are the places I ate, and heartily recommend.
Mi Otavalito - Sucre 11-19, Otavalo, Ecuador
$4 lunch – delicious! Best food eaten in over a month. Fresh, traditional and full of flavour.
Deli Cafe Restaurant - Great for sweet stuff – a little on the pricey side.
Quito is the highest official capital city in the world, located on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano in the Andes mountains.
The city itself is most famous for being situated on the equator line, dividing the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and was one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978, for this very reason. A monument and museum marking the general location of the equator – la mitad del mundo (the middle of the world) – in the city centre makes for a great day trip!
The word ‘Ecuador’ is of course Spanish for ‘Equator.’
North terminal in the north of the city (for buses going to the North of the country)
South terminal in the south of the city (for buses going to the South of the country).
Travel is very simple. You either travel north or south and for every hour you travel you pay $1 (so a 2-hour drive to Mindo would cost $2)
To get from one bus terminal to the other would cost you around $20 in a taxi and depending on traffic may take 1 hour.
A decent bus and train route connects the North and the South of the City.
North and South Divide
Two main areas make up the city centre: Mariscal and the Old Town.
Mariscal is closer to the north bus terminal
The Old Town is closer to the south terminal
La Mariscal - the north
Considered the city’s entertainment centre
Lots of bars and restaurants, over-priced hotels and hostels
A good base if you plan on taking any tours outside of the city, for example to Cotopaxi
More modern, so an ideal place for large supermarkets, chains and shops – should you need to stock up or buy any clothes or products.
Close to the main tourist destinations of TeleferiQo and La Mitad del Mundo – Latitude 00°00’00”
Due to the high level of tourism, exercise caution when walking the streets at night. Take taxis, don’t carry large sums of money with you and remain vigilant.
The Old Town - the south
Quaint streets, old buildings, lovely little plazas and cobbled roads. This is a lovely part of the city but eating and drinking options are few and far between. Night life doesn’t really exist past 9.30pm.
Places to Stay
Here are some pretty decent budget accommodation options (less than $30 for a private double with private bathroom).
Near La Mariscal
Hostal El Taxo - Mariscal Foch E4-116 and Luis Cordero
This is a great option. The rooms are a decent size and are clean. There’s hot water, a huge living area space and big kitchen with two stoves. Wifi is decent.
Near The Old Town
Really clean and modern with a laundry next door. Very good Wifi but no kitchen facilities. This place is more like a hotel with hostel prices.
Things To See and Do
Latitude 00°00’00” – La Mitad del Mundo (located in the north of the city).
There is a monument and a museum about 100 meters apart from one another.
Go to the museum FIRST! The most accurate location of ‘the middle earth line‘ is inside the museum – not the monument.
Entrance fee with guided tour – $4.
A guide will take you through some amusing and baffling experiments on the line, highlighting the effects of standing on either side of the northern and southern hemispheres. Ever wondered if the water does actually flush in a different direction depending on which side of the world you are standing on? Find out here!
Take your passport with you and get a ‘Latitude 00°00’00” stamp!
After you’ve had your fill at the museum make your way to the monument, a few minutes walk away. It’s about $7 entrance fee? I didn’t go in myself, as could see the monument well enough from the entrance.
This is Quito’s very own aerial tramway, riding up 2.5km to an altitude of about 4,100 metres from the city centre to the hill known as Cruz Loma on the eastern side of the Pichincha volcano. Besides the sky ride, the Teleferiqo is also a visitor centre that includes a small amusement park with Go Karts and Paint Ball, restaurants, shopping malls, and food court.
From the end of the ride you can hike about 4 hours to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4680 m). Morning times are usually best to visit, as by the afternoon it can get cloudy. Take warm clothes as the higher you go the windier it gets.
Cotopaxi Mountain Bike Tour
Cotopaxi Biking Dutchman - Foch E4-283 y Av. Amazonas
An amazing adventure tour - cycling down one of the highest active volcanoes in the world! The company specialises in multi-day excursions in the Andes region. We took the 1 day mountain bike tour and it was thrilling!
I’ve included more information about this tour below under Latacunga. Latacunga is the nearest major town to Cotopaxi National Park. The bike tour company let us bring our luggage with us from Quito and dropped us off at the end of the tour near the Pan-American highway so we could catch a bus to Latacunga and continue our journey south. If you’re in Latacunga already and don’t want to make a trip all the way up to Quito, you can arrange to meet the company at Cotopaxi.
Sunday Cycling – Ciclopaseo
Every Sunday between 8:00 am and 2:00 pm the entire length of Avenida Amazonas and most of the old town closes to cars, making way for thousands of cyclists; families, locals, bike enthusiasts – anyone can take part. There are a number of places you can hire bikes from. Ask at your hostel for details.
I also heard there were nightly bike rides every Monday with groups ranging in size from 20-50. Sounded like fun – wish I’d had time to do it. Meeting point was in front of El Rey bike shop on Amazonas (near Cordero).
The Old Town – La Ronda
Recently restored La Ronda boasts old 17th century buildings and artesian craft stalls. Very pretty, very quaint – everything you would expect from an ‘Old Town.’
Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry
I was in and out of Quito a few times, catching connecting flights and shifting hostels to be closer to bus terminals. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the city and didn’t experience much in the way of night life but these are some of the places I winded up eating and drinking in. Highly recommended!
Great burgers for just $5.50 and massive jugs of beer. Cheap, crazy decor, great music and friendly and accommodating staff. I went back 3 times.
Cafeteria Modelo is one of the city’s oldest cafés. Make sure you eat here! Breakfast is great – filling and cheap! It’s not gourmet but I tell you what, it’s served with love! I loved the old-school diner feel. Staff were friendly and locals were welcoming.
Bicycle themed cafe. I didn’t go here but I heard great things!
The Galapagos Islands
One of the most diverse and unique places on the planet; where wild animals and humans live naturally side-by-side.
I’ve written a blog of highlights and tips for travelling the Galapagos independently: The Galapagos Islands – How to Travel Independently.
Some Galapagos facts that may surprise you:
Flights to the Galapagos are frequent, leaving at least 3 times a day every day from Quito/Guayaquil. Last minute flights from these cities (in 2015) cost around $400 return.
The Galapagos Islands are quite built up. There are roads, cars, houses, hostels, shops, ATMS (there is no ATM facility on Isabela Island but there are plenty of hostels there, and shops/restaurants/bars). When you arrive you can easily find your way to a hostel or hotel. The Islands cater for budget travellers. Hostels charge around $25 for a decent double private room.
Food is as expensive as you want it to be. You can eat at a fancy restaurant by the pier for $50 or grab yourself a hot dog and a salad for $3 in town.
It costs around $30 one way to travel between Islands.
Most activities on the Islands (research centres/breeding centres/seeing the giant land tortoises) are free and the wildlife is literally all around you. The $100 fee you pay on entering the Island covers access to all of these areas.
There are 2 must-do trips on the Galapagos Islands, which do cost a bit of money (around $100 per trip at the time I travelled), but are completely worth it:
Kicker Rock off San Cristobal Island (swim above Hammerhead sharks and lots of marine life, visit 2 PERFECT beaches and swim with sea lions)
Los Tuneles off Isabela Island (see Blue-footed Boobies, swim with penguins and see the white-tipped reef sharks up close).
If you book a ‘Galapagos Tour’ – either a cruise or a land tour you are wasting your money! You are much better off travelling independently. All excursions out to wildlife habitats are guided by experts anyway. What we paid for, for less than a week we could have paid and stayed for over 2 weeks. It was a terrible realisation but we did have a good time in the end. It just meant we had to break away from our tour group and try and cram in as much as we could in a very short space of time.
If you are on a tour, especially if you’re on a cruise, never ask anyone else what they paid. The likelihood is they paid less than half of what you paid as it’s almost always possible to get a ‘last minute’ cruise space from the Islands.
Mindo, a mountainous valley surrounded by cloud forest is situated in the western slopes of the Andes, where two of the most biologically diverse eco-regions in the world meet: the Chocoan lowlands and the Tropical Andes.