Ecuador and Galapagos Highlights

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.

From Otavalo we travelled to

  • Quito
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • Mindo
  • Latacunga / Cotopaxi National Park
  • Quilotoa (where we completed the famous Quilotoa Loop, stopping off at Chugchilan, Insinlivi and Sigchos)
  • Banos
  • Cuenca
  • Guayaquil

Scroll down to see my highlights for each of these areas!


Otavalo


It was apparent from the very start that Ecuadorians are incredibly spiritual people, who consider their land sacred and magical, and take great care of their environment – their home.

The culture and spirituality resonated most in Otavalo. We couldn’t have had a more beautiful introduction to the country.

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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.

According to local legend, Imbabura fought with Mojanda to win the love of Cotacachi, who became his wife. When Cotacachi is snow-capped in the morning, it is said that Imbabura has been with her during the night. When it rains in Otavalo and surrounding areas, it is also said that Imbabura is “peeing” in the valley.

I would have loved to have had the time to visit these ancient volcanoes. When I return to Ecuador (and I definitely will), exploring them will be first on my list to do! I’ve included some information below about trips to these volcanoes.


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.

As Otavalo is famous for its textiles, many of the nearby villages and towns are famous for their own particular crafts. Cotacachi, for example, is the center of Ecuador’s leather industry. In San Antonio, where the local specialty is wood carving, the main street prominently displays carved statues, picture frames, and furniture.


Places to Stay


Hostal Riviera Sucre

Garcia Moreno 380 y Roca
Otavalo
www.rivierasucre.com
Rivierasucre@hotmail.com

Around $26 a night for a large double private room with private bathroom.

Big double rooms, decent Wifi, nice, homely communal areas including a garden, a library and a living area with fireplace. A home away from home.


Things to See and Do


Otavalo Market

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 becomes full of stalls selling textiles, jewelry, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous clothes, wool, handicraft and street food.

Be sure to bag yourself an Alpaca scarf. In Europe or in the States you’ll be looking at paying $100 for a scarf, which in Otavalo you could pick up for $7 – all sizes, all colours and patterns.

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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 fabulous 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 managing director of Bufandy offered us a guided tour of her workshoops, which sadly are not open to the public, however, there are many weavers in Otavalo who do offer tours.

The tours offered by the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop are rated highly on Trip Advisor.

Based on my experiences, I’d say visiting a workshop is well worth it!

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Places to 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


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.’


Quito in a Nutshell

Travel

Quito is MASSIVE! There are two bus terminals – a North terminal in the North of the city (for buses going to the North of the country) and a South terminal in the South of the city (for buses going to the South of the country). Travel is very simple. North and 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.

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 whilst the old town is closer to the south terminal.


Areas of Quito

La Mariscal

This area is considered the city’s entertainment centre. Basically, a lot of bars and restaurants, over-priced hotels and hostels, and a great deal of piss heads. It is a good base, however if you plan on taking any tours outside of the city, for example to Cotopaxi. It’s also more modern, so an ideal place for large supermarkets, chains and shops – should you need to stock up or buy any clothes or products. It’s also closer to the main tourist destinations of TeleferiQo and La Mitad del Mundo – Latitude 00°00’00” (see below – things to see and do).

Due to the high level of tourism in the capital, one should 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

Quaint streets, old buildings, lovely little plazas and cobbled roads. This is lovely part of the city but eating and drinking options are few and far between. Night life doesn’t really exist past 9.30pm.

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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
http://hostaleltaxo.com/contactos.html

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.

The only thing we had trouble with was a couple of guys who decided to come back from a night out at 2.00 am and talk loudly down our corridor until 6.00 am – but then it was a Friday night and we were near the party district. What can you do?

Near The Old Town

La Rosario

Los Rios N12-25 | Entre Espinoza y Antonio Elizalde, Quito, Ecuador

Really clean and modern with a laundry next door. Very good Wifi but no kitchen facilities. This place is more like a hotel at hostel prices.


Things To See and Do


Latitude 00°00’00” – Middle Earth – La Mitad del Mundo

(Located in the north of the city)

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There is one way you SHOULD do this:

  • There is a monument and a museum. They are about 100 meters away from one another. Go to the museum FIRST!
  • Take a taxi to the museum. See if you can buddy up with some people (It’s about $15 in total each way from the Mariscal area).
  • The most accurate location of ‘the middle earth line‘ is actually inside the museum – not at 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!

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NOTE: 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 personally didn’t bother going in and could see the monument well enough from the entrance. I just took a picture from outside.

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TeleferiQo

Av Occidental near Av La Gasca $9 8.00 am – 8.00 pm

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

www.bikingdutchman.com

Foch E4-283 y Av. Amazonas
Ground floor – right
Quito – Ecuador

biking.dutchman@gmail.com

Hands down the best adventure tour I have ever done! This is definitely the best way to see and experience one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.

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Why? The Biking Dutchman is one of the only companies that take you as close to the summit as you can get for biking and they are the only company that take you off course through old lava fields, so you experience cycling through several different terrains. We went on a weekend. The place we cycled to is not very accessible to cars – so there was not a soul in sight!

I’m not the world’s greatest cyclist – I would consider myself a novice and I found the bike ride easy. There are a few up-hills I struggled with but it was mainly all downhill and on flat (albeit bumpy) land.

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 actually arrange to meet the company at Cotopaxi.

Here’s a brief overview from the company:

“Drive through awesome landscape to the highest point. On clear days it is possible to see 8 volcanoes. Bike on dirt roads through volcanic ash and highlands at 3700 m…”


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 the nearest place.

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I also heard there were nightly bike rides. Sounded like fun – wish I’d had time to do it. Here’s what it says in Lonely Planet:

“Every Monday around 8.00 pm, a group – ranging in size from 20-50 – of intrepid cyclists meets in front of El Rey bike shop on Amazonas (near Cordero) in the Mariscal and heads off into the night. Itineraries vary from week to week (El Panecillo is a favourite), with leisurely rides lasting about 3 hours. It’s a well-organised outfit, with guides in front and back, making sure no-one gets left behind. At the end of the ride, the group reconvenes over a bite and a drink. There’s no charge, though donations are suggested to help keep the group in business. Bikes are available for hire $8 for the evening.”


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.’

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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!

La Mariscal

D’Vinci Rocks Bar and Lounge

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.

Old Town

Cafateria Modelo

Modelo, Cnr sucre y garcia moreno
8.00 am-8.00 pm Mon-Sat, to 6.00 pm Sun.

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. A really nice change after Colombia.

La Cleta

Lugo n24-250

Bicycle themed cafe. I didn’t go here but I heard good things!


 The Galapagos Islands


The most unique place on the planet, where wild animals and humans live naturally side-by-side.

I’ve written a whole list of highlights and tips for travelling the Galapagos independently, and I’ve also included some pictures. Check out my blog post: 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 very 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. I think 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), 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), and Los Tuneles off Isabela Island (see Blue-footed Boobies, swim with penguins and see the white-tipped reef sharks up close). You have to book these trips in advance if you can as they are incredibly popular and get booked up straight away. Don’t get sucked into the other tours that cost the same amount of cash like the 360 tour of San Cristobal Island. They’re not all that good. There are dozens of agencies in town – shop around for the best price!
  • 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. 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


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.

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Bird-watchers, hikers and weekenders from Quito and beyond all flock here, and locals have created an impressive range of activities for enjoying the surrounding cloud forest.

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My recommendation – if you want to enjoy some outdoor activities in Ecuador, such as zip-lining or tubing then Mindo is the place to do it. Don’t bother waiting for Banos. Banos is over crowded and the scenery is not as nice. I was not impressed with Banos at all to be honest. Activities were organised over bridges by the roadside. In Mindo, you have nothing but beautiful forest canopy ahead of you.

The town centre is a little beaten up as it is very much in the midst of redevelopment but it still retains a certain charm – I really liked it!

TIPS:

The best time of day to be out in Mindo

The mornings tend to be the best part of the day, so get up early to enjoy any planned activities. Most days will see rain creeping in by the early afternoon.

Damp!

Another great tip – keep as many of your belongings packed up in your luggage as you can. There is a hell of a lot of damp in the air and everything absorbs it. I had a pair of flip flops with me and I didn’t wear them out once. They were in my room, under the bed. When I went to pack them they were literally drenched! We were in Mindo for 5 days. I wouldn’t recommend staying for longer than that.


Places to Stay


Cabanas Armonia

$30 private double room with private bathroom, breakfast included.

Cabanas Armonia Y Jardin de Orquideas
Sixto Duran Vallen y Lluvia de Oro, Casa 2, Manzana 49, Mindo 170751, Ecuador
+593 2-217-0131

Can be booked via Booking.com or Hostelbookers but tax is added. It’s probably better to email directly or call ahead. Ask for a room with a balcony/terrace.


Things to See and Do


Mariposas de Mindo

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A butterfly farm located a few km outside of Mindo town centre (about 40 minute walk). Best time to go – 10.30 am to 11.30 am – this is usually the warmest part of the day when the butterflies are at their most active.

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Tarabita and Waterfalls

Mindo is famous for its many waterfalls. Hiking to each one makes for an enjoyable, albeit slightly tiring day trip. Go to any agency in town for a map.

To access the waterfalls:

  • Take a taxi for about $6, and tell the driver to take you to the Tarabita (the cable car). It’s all up hill so you definitely want to take a taxi, unless you fancy a 2 hour up hill hike before the tough 3 hour hike around the waterfalls.
  • The Tarabita is operated via an old motorised engine and you need to wait for a guy who operates the engine to turn up (usually at around 9.30 am).
  • The Tarabita should cost around $5
  • Once you return to the Tarabita  you can walk back to town (1 hour or so), or hitch a lift back.

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Bird watching in the back garden

Try bird watching for an entire afternoon from the comfort of someone’s back yard for just $3!

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Over 160 species of bird visit a secret garden, right in the heart of town. The owner serves up 100 bananas a day and 3 kilos of sugar to keep these birdies happy.

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Most afternoons you are guaranteed to spot Toucans and every day you can watch hundreds upon hundreds of hummingbirds fight it out for the sugar water. The owner serves up beer, coffee, tea and snacks to visitors – a perfect bird watching experience!

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I can’t find any information about this place on the internet. The name of it is something like ‘Disconserto.’ It’s pretty easy to find. Behind the main road of town there is a small football stadium. It’s at the top right hand corner of the road at the far end of the stadium. It’s on the same road as the hostel we stayed in. It really is worth paying a visit!


Las Tangaras Reserve

Heard very good things about this – worth checking out! Opportunity to spot the famous ‘Cock of the Rock.’


Other Activities


You can also do tubing and zip-lining. As we’d done these before in other countries we decided not to do this but I’d rate the scenery well over Banos. If I’d never done adventure sports before and had to decide between Banos and Mindo, Mindo would win hands down. The scenery is better and it is less crowded.


Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Inti & Killa

We stumbled upon this place accidentally. Turns out it’s number 1 on Trip Advisor.

Best bar I’ve visited in a long time. Huge servings of wine at an incredible $4, and probably the best burger I’ve eaten in years. One thing though – sporadic opening hours. We wanted to come back every day. The owner was lovely but didn’t have set opening times. When she said she would be open we turned up and it was closed. Once she apologised and said she was just very tired and decided not to open – fair enough – but she assured us she would be open the next evening. We were looking forward to that but turned up and lo and behold, it was closed.

The bar is usually open between 6.00 pm until 9.00 pm. That’s a real shame because if the business was open for longer and with standardised times it would make a killing. Maybe it doesn’t need to? Still, it would have been nice to have some consistency. We had some lovely evenings there but on the whole felt a bit let down.

Definitely worth trying though! Mulled wine, huge glasses of red, whiskey tea, amazing hamburgers. You’ll be missing a treat if you don’t go. If it is closed our next best option  in town was definitely El Tigrillo.


El Tigrillo

BEST PIZZA – wood-fire oven – terrific and friendly staff!

You can also sample some tasty traditional Ecuadorian lunch for $3.50. It’s not gourmet but if you’re on a budget and need to fill your belly for the entire day then go for this. Soup of the day, meat or fish with rice, beans and salad and a banana. Good stuff! The salad on its own for $3 is delicious. They call it a vegetable salad but that just means tomatoes, peppers, avocado, salad, herbs – the lot! Chicken and chips on the side – bam! You can just about order anything in this place and leave satisfied. However, you can’t go there and not have the pizza.

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Don’t fall for the ex-pat joints – they’re over-priced and the staff aren’t as nice

I tried 2 other places that happen to be run by ex-pats – The Beehive and Lonely Planet’s TOP CHOICE – Caskafessu. I didn’t rate them at all.

The Beehive: it was raining heavily and before we even set foot in the door the owner told us to wipe our feet properly and hang our coats on doors (no hooks on the doors) as when it gets wet, nothing dries. We hadn’t even gone in yet. Bit rude and unwelcoming. It was quite over-priced in there as well.

Caskafessu: Similarly, the owner on Caskafessu greeted us with ‘we’re not serving food!’ when all we wanted was a drink. We sat down for a glass of wine and he told us that in an hour a band was playing and we’d have to pay cover. Fair enough but a ‘welcome’ or ‘hi, how are ya doing?’ would have been a nice way to welcome us into the building.

Go for the Ecuadorian run places. Ecuadorians are a lot more friendly, the service is better, the food is fantastic and prices are very reasonable.


Latacunga and The Quilotoa Loop

Latacunga is capital to the Cotopaxi province just south of Quito. People choose Latacunga as a base for exploring the world’s most active volcano – Cotopaxi, as well as surrounding peaks, such as the famous volcanic lake-filled crater – Quilotoa and surrounding, untouched countryside.

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Places To Stay


Hostal Tiana

Luis. F. Vivero 1-31 y Sanchez de Orellana
Latacunga, Ecuador
info@hostaltiana.com
03-2810147

This is a great base. Rooms are huge and the communal areas are very nice. Most staff are very friendly – the owner was a little bit hostile.

You can store your luggage here in the basement if you are planning to do the Quilotoa Loop or any other long multi-day excursions.


Things to See and Do


Cotopaxi Mountain Bike Tour

Cotopaxi Biking Dutchman
http://www.bikingdutchman.com
Foch E4-283 y Av. Amazonas
Ground floor – right
Quito – Ecuador
biking.dutchman@gmail.com

Hands down the best adventure tour I have ever done! This is definitely the best way to see and experience one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.

Why? The Biking Dutchman is one of the only companies who take you as close to the summit as you can get for biking and they are the only company that take you off course through old lava fields, so you experience cycling through several different terrains. We went on a weekend. The place we cycled to is not very accessible to cars – so there was not a soul in sight!

I’m not the world’s greatest cyclist – I would consider myself a novice and I found the bike ride easy. There are a few up-hills I struggled with but it was mainly all downhill and on flat (albeit bumpy) land.

The company is based in Quito but you can arrange to meet the company in Cotopaxi which is only a 30 minute bus ride away from Latacunga. Alternatively, if you start your journey in Quito and do the tour, the company will drop you off by the Pan-American highway so you can catch a bus and continue your journey south. They’re very flexible.

Here’s a detailed overview from the company about the tour itself:

“Drive through awesome landscape to the highest point. On clear days it is possible to see 8 volcanoes. Bike on dirt roads through volcanic ash and highlands at 3700 m…”

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“At 07:00 AM we leave Quito and after driving south for 1,5 hours on the Pan-American highway we reach the park entrance of Cotopaxi National Park. We drive through pine forest and soon reach the museum of the park. After visiting the museum and savoring a cup of ginger tea we continue the ascent in our 4-wheel drive vehicle until we reach the highest point of the tour, 4.500 meters/15.000 feet. The view from this point is stunning and on a clear day we are able to see 8 volcanoes.

We then put on helmets, gloves and protection pads and the bike adventure on the world’s highest active volcano can begin. The first 8 km will take us down 700 m. on dirt roads through volcanic ash and páramo landscape. At 3.800 m. you actually have to do some pedaling heading down another 8 km between volcanic rocks and wild horses to our lunch spot by an Inca ruin at 3.700 m.

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With some luck we might see a condor or a caracara. We put the bikes back on the jeep and head for the lake of Limpiopungo at 3.800 m. where we start the 16 km downhill biking on dirt and paved roads through pine forest.

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The bike adventure is over for this time and around 16h00 we are back in Quito again.”


The Quilotoa Loop

If you visit Ecuador and you don’t visit this crater or do this loop, then you’re missing out on one of the greatest things this country has to offer – STUNNING scenery, and some seriously adventurous hiking!

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People approach the Loop differently – starting their hikes in different villages, or by taking the roads or travelling by car, but in my eyes there is only one way the Loop should be done. Check out my blog post with a step-by-step detailed guide, including information on the trails and how to follow them. The Quilotoa Loop – Ecuador.

As a general rule one should:

  • Start at the town of Quilotoa. This is the coldest and windiest part of the trek. It is a good place to buy additional clothing (hats/gloves/scarves) if you need them. If you make Quilotoa your last stop nothing will really prepare you for the weather conditions and you’ll be so tired from days of hiking you may not appreciate it as much, especially as the weather up there can be quite rough. If you start at the crater you can take more time to appreciate it. The walk to the village of Chugchilan from Quilotoa is stunning! When you get to the town of Chugchillan you can actually look back over the mountainous landscape and see where it is you’ve come from. It’s breath-taking and incredibly rewarding. It sounds strange but I got the impression that hiking back the other way would definitely be more tiring – with steeper climbs at the end when you least want them.
  • Follow the natural path and keep away from the roads. Taking the option of public transport between villages just defeats the purpose. In following the natural path, you follow the same path as the indigenous people. You will hardly see another tourist in sight.
  • Aim to stay at Chugchillan for a few days. The treks around there are very beautiful and there are terrific accommodation options.

Also:

  • Your route should include these villages: Quilotoa, Chugchilan, Insinlivi, Sigchos
  • There are other villages you can walk to, to really complete the loop but the landscape is nowhere near as stunning. Locals advised us to just stick to these villages.

Banos


Banos is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ecuador due to its waterfalls, volcanic thermal pools and plethora of available adventure sports – rafting, kayaking, canyoning, bridge jumping, hiking, biking.

We had an Okay stay in Banos. The hostel we stayed in was great and the bars in town were really nice. The scenery and activities were good. Ecuador just has better.

A highlight was definitely the hike up to Casa Del Arbol (The Tree House AKA ‘The End of the World.’)

Once in town pick up a map and guide from your hostel or from any tourist information desk and make enquiries about any of the activities below. The hostel we stayed in provided us with all the information we needed.


Places to Stay


Hostal Princesa Maria Backpackers

Fantastic family run hostel – clean rooms, decent kitchen and communal facilities. The hostel is located a few minutes walk outside of the main town, so it’s quiet and peaceful. Definitely not a party hostel, the owners are pretty strict about noise after midnight.


Things to See and Do


Hike to Casa Del Arbol

Sit upon the world-famous tree-house swing that takes you off the ‘end of the world.’ If you’re lucky you’ll get a clear day and you’ll be able to see the ‘active’ Tungurahua volcano.

TIP: Even if it’s not so clear when you arrive, hang around for an hour or two and wait to see if the weather changes. We arrived and the view was complete fog and cloud. After a few hours most of the clouds cleared.

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Bike to Diablo waterfall

To be honest I’ve just put this in because I’m not sure there’s much else to do in Banos that you couldn’t find to do elsewhere in the country and have a better experience. Thermal pools here are way too overcrowded – there are a MILLION times better ones in Cuenca. Zip-lining and adventure sports are much nicer in Mindo.

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The waterfalls are a highlight here and look very pretty. A bike ride takes you mainly all down hill to all the waterfalls but the route follows a main highway for most of the way. It’s a bit dangerous, especially on a windy day and car fumes in the face detract from what you assume will be a ride through idyllic scenery. The hike down to the Diablo waterfall is nice, and you can climb through small tunnels to get to the back of the waterfall. To be honest it was all a bit ‘meh.’ The waterfall was big and powerful and nice to look at for all of 1 minute. Crowds of people pushing you along was just irritating. I was just happy that trucks picked us up and took us and our bikes back to town.

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Cuenca


The City of Cuenca is located in the highlands of Ecuador. The city centre itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site because of its many historical buildings. It’s not terribly big and there’s not a whole lot to do but it’s definitely worth stopping here for 2 or 3 days – for the hats, the thermal pools, the architecture and the food! Ecuadorian culture at its best.


Places to Stay


Hogar Cuencano Hostal

Hermano Miguel 4-36 y Calle Larga
Hostelhogarcuencano@hotmail.com

Great central location, good kitchen facilities, very good Wifi, laundry, private rooms and spacious dorms. Beds are incredibly comfortable.


Things To See and Do


Climb to the top of Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción for sweeping views of the city (small donation required – enquire within the church).

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Take a tourist bus and travel to the hat emporium where they make the Panama Hats

There are two buses departing from the main square – one which takes you on a tour of the south of the city, one that takes you around the north of the city. Make sure you take the North Tour, where you stop off at the hat emporium. Here they make the ORIGINAL Ecuadorian toquilla hats AKA ‘The Panama Hat.” You can purchase your very own hat – prices range from $30 to $1000+

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Thermal Pools

Novaqua

Located in Banos, Cuenca (don’t confuse this Banos for the main city of Banos)

La Guadalupaba, Cuenca 010101, Ecuador

This place is so relaxing! No queues, no kids, no crowds!

There is one main hot spring pool, a room with 2 pools – one hot, one cold which you can dip in and out of, a mud bath and a sauna/steam room with eucalyptus leaves. It’s pure heaven!

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Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry


Raymipampa Cafe Restaurant
Benigno Malo 8-59 y Sucre

Probably the best culinary experience I’ve had in Ecuador.

Great atmosphere, good people watching, lively, Ceviche is INCREDIBLE and the house white wine was surprisingly lovely. Staff were friendly and efficient and everything was very affordable. Considering its location, right next to the Cathedral, I was really surprised how cheap and relaxed it was.

We came here for breakfast and dinner two days in a row!


Guayaquil


Guayaquil is the big city in the south of Ecuador that you don’t really want to visit but you kind of have to as you may be flying out of there. It’s an extremely ugly, grey concrete jungle. McDonald’s is probably your best bet for food.

Accommodation wise we actually got pretty lucky! We found a lovely hostel which we stayed in for one night before leaving Ecuador for Argentina. It was close to the bus station and the airport, and was just around the corner from the big shopping malls. Despite its central location it was actually very quiet! I’d highly recommend it.

Dreamkapture Hostal

Alborada Doceava Etapa, Calle Juan Sixto Bernal; MZ 02, Villa 21, Guayaquil.

Bookings can be made in advance via Hostelworld.


Next stop: Argentina


Check out my highlights for everywhere else I traveled to: CubaMexico, Colombia, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.

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