I happened to be one of the first few thousand travellers to ever land at Quito's new international airport, and although that might sound cool to many, it wasn't exactly good news. After years in development, the rather distant new airport opened up and started operations just a bit over a week prior to my arrival. The old airport was only a few kilometres away from the city centre, while the new one was located nearly two hours away! Oh well, at least it was nice and shiny!
From the moment I landed I was surprised to notice the winter clothing being worn by locals – the temperature was only 20°C! I was arriving from boiling hot and humid Panama City, so the weather came as amazing news.
A funny thing that hit my mind right away was that I, for some reason, never really connected Ecuador, as a country, with the Andes. Bolivia, yes. Peru, yes. But not Ecuador. Don't know why. Suppose the image I painted in my mind about this special little country was a very different one, probably revolving around the Galapagos Islands, and jungles…
Embarrassingly, It was really only a few weeks prior to my arrival that I actually did a bit more studying about the country I was about to visit. And I was pleasantly surprised.
Quito, the highest altitude capital of the world, is situated on a strip of land set right between a splendorous mountain range, making its natural setting truly unique. Green hills filled with agricultural life and an overall sense of tranquility. The weather is pleasant year round, making this culturally diverse and little talked about metropolis a very inviting destination indeed. It is one of the best preserved colonial cities in South America, combining attractive squares, and beautiful well preserved churches in its historical centre. The city has its modern side as well, and seems to have been well planned and to serve its residents very well.
Right after arriving I made my way on a public trolley to the city's centre, starting at the astounding Plaza Santo Domingo. I was immediately impressed by how beautiful Colonial Quito was, particularly at night with the nighttime lighting. I continued my walk and ended up in the lively La Ronda district, where a good mix of locals and visitors are found sipping drinks and listening to live music at the many restaurants and bars that line up the cobblestone streets. I was keen to take a part in the fun, and quickly made friends with people and danced the night away in true Ecuadorian style, sipping on my Naranjita drink, which was really tasty.
Over the next few days I spent a lot of time exploring the centre, as it was very very dense. Highlights for me were the Church of the Compania, (possibly the most beautiful church interior of a church in the Americas) and the 24 de Mayo street area, boasting beautiful views of the centre and nearby mountains.
Food was cheap and widely available. To my privilege, Ecuadorians eat a lot of grains, which is always great for vegetarian travelers such as myself.
The Mariscal neighborhood of Quito is where most foreigners tend to stay, filled by bars, discos, hostels and travel agencies all around. On a Friday night, it was interesting to see just how "happening" the nightlife there seemed to be!
Quito was a very easygoing and calm city, and even more for a Capital.
I ended up spending 5 night in Quito and could easily have stayed longer. It was a very pleasant surprise and it is a shame that so many tourists end up missing it or do not make plans of spending too long there, as they visit Ecuador fo the Amazon Jungle or to fly into the Galapagos Islands.
Visiting "La Mitad del Mundo" (Word's halfway point) is a popular day trip out of Quito, and although the "Halfway point" monument marking the Ecuador is located there, the place wasn't in fact the halfway point, I came to learn from locals. The actual spot is on a further and less accessible village, so the actual "tourist attraction" was built there.
I must say that I didn't find it all that interesting, but the nearby village of Puluhuaua made up for that. What makes the village special is that it is set right on the crater of many old, inactive volcano, among incredible scenery and offering great hiking opportunity. There, for the first time in Ecuador, my body was reminded of the altitude of where I found myself, so I took it easy and coped well.
Latacunga, Cotopaxi and the Quilatoa Loop
There were way too many places to visit in Ecuador and I had not much longer than a month. Bus travel was extremely affordable and safe, and along with hitch hiking, is how I got around the country during my stay. My next stop, continuing southwards, was the city of Latacunga.
Latacunga was the capital of the Cotopaxi province. The town doesn't have a lot for itself aside from being the nearest point to the famous Cotopaxi volcano. It turns out that Ecuador is the country in the world with the single highest concentration of volcanoes, something I also only learned shortly before venturing into the country. After an afternoon stroll, I came to notice how the cloudy weather was hiding the visibility of the Cotopaxi volcano, which was apparently very common during the rainy season.
Although it would have been great to catch a beautiful volcano view, it wasn't the main purpose of my visit. I was really interested in visiting the infamous Quilatoa Loop, located only about an hour and half away from Latacunga.
The bus ride went into the mountain village of Zanbahua. The ride up there was spectacular, and it only got more traditional and Andean the closest I got into the village. I got out of the bus and headed down into town on foot, despite having most people pointing out to me that the bus to Quilatoa was on the other direction. I wanted to see the village and to walk around, rather than going directly to where most visitors go. People there were very interesting looking and as friendly as it gets. They worked their land, cared for their sheep, cows and llamas fully dressed in Andean authentic style clothing.
After a nice lunch with a very cool local family, I took the 15 minute ride uphill, to the 13 Km far away, famous Quilatoa Lagoon. It was indeed spectacular! After a long ride up the mountains, one reaches a large valley way up hill, with a massive, crystal clear, beautiful, blue lagoon.
I was quite keen on hiking down anyway, for it was altogether stunning scenery, possibly one of the nicest days I ever had traveling in South America.
Banos must be the place in Ecuador that brings Ecuadorians the most pride, after, of course, the Galapagos Islands. Every single person in this country that heard about my intention of visiting this town opened a wide smile and mentioned just how beautiful it was.
It is indeed a very well visited part of Ecuador, mostly for its landscape, which makes it a perfect point for extreme sports, such as Canopying, River rafting and Mountain climbing. It is also filled by massive waterfalls, valleys and volcanoes, and all in an area with very moderate, warm climate.
Getting there was a trip in itself and truly amazing. The scenery just kept on getting better, to the point that it bought tears to my eyes. Upon reaching Banos, I walked back uphill to find the house where I would be hosted. Quite a walk, but just so beautiful that I could barely feel the weariness of the hike.
Banos was filled with hiking activities, and even just finding a place to hang out and contemplate the landscape, was quite an activity. I'm not usually one to be all excited about hiking uphill, but for some reason, on my second day in town, I figured I'd do it.
Going from town into the Bella Vista or "Cruce" viewpoint was tough, and took me nearly 1.5 hours. It was really worth it though, as the view was indeed beautiful, displaying a very panoramic view of the entire valley. As I made my way back into town, I was blessed by amazing displays on lava coming out of the nearby (but distant enough) volcano. Such displays happen once in a while, and apparently it was rather fortunate of me to be there in a day in which it happened. Incredible!
The following day was also very active. Most people visit the "Waterfalls route" on a bicycle, as they can be easily rented in town. But I took a bus headed to Rio Verde, from where I could walk into the Paillon del Diablo, one of the most famous of the many waterfalls. It was cool, particularly because I went through the small village. The falls were nice, including a tricky suspension that I was thrilled to cross . Banos was such a highlight of the trip, and so different to the Andean parts of the country!
Alausi and the Nariz del Diablo train ride
Alausi sits about two hours below Riobamba, in the Chiboratzo province, still in the Andean part of Ecuador. Two things makes it a stop on the travelers beaten track: The Chiboratzo volcano, allegedly the furthest place, high up, one could go from the centre of earth, and the Nariz del Diablo Valley, offering one of the world's most scenic train rides. As soon as I read about this notorious train ride, I knew I just had to check it out, as it sounded fantastic! s I love trains and read that the trai ride to the Valley is a must-do, I figured I'd visit the town.
Alausi seemed quite pretty, even as foggy as it was. It was more of a town than an actual city. Walking through the train treks and greeting people along the way was quite rewarding, and gave me a good sense of the atmosphere that one doesn't get to experience by just arriving in the morning, catching the train ride, and leaving town.
I hiked through local communities, appreciated the nature around me while chewing sugar cane sticks, offered to me along the way. The valley's beauty can hardly be put into words, really. The train goes through a less diverse area, but offers panoramic views of the Valley in great comfort.
Next morning before leaving town, I was fortunate enough to come across the twn's Sunday market, full of indigenous folk from nearby villages, like quaint little Guamote. I walked around for a bit before making my way to the highway and hitching a 4 hour ride to the beautiful colonial town of Cuenca.
Cuenca is the Ecuadorian city with the highest percentage of foreigners. It is, in fact, a big time up-and-coming destination for retired Americans. The weather is extremely pleasant as well as the city's layout.
Cuenca is a truly colonial city. I had heard from many Ecuadorians that it was extremely beautiful, much like the centre of Quito. To add to the beautiful old architecture, the city was laid out among mountains, often green as the city is very privileged weather wise (eternal spring, as they cal it) and also has four rivers that cut through town.
Walking around, stopping at some of its many cafes and gazing at the many churches and old building was beyond pleasant!
It was then was time to catch a bus to Guayaquil. Ecuador's biggest city is known for having little to offer to visitors, but it's artistic quarter by the ocean is pretty, however small. Most people, including myself, end up there in order to catch their flight into the Galapagos archipelago. It is worth a stop, I would say, even if just for the day.
I did make it into Galapagos, and that outstanding experience will be further detailed in a post of its own.
Otavalo and my last few days in Ecuador
My first visit into the northern town of Otavalo happened right on the beggining of my trip to Ecuador, as a day trip from Quito. I knew right away I would be back though, as it was worth more time and as it would be the town from which I would eventually cross the border into Colombia.
My last in Ecuador was spent hiking in the small villages around Otavalo, as well as paying its famous crafts market a second visit.
The market that I had found to be so overly touristy 6 weeks before, on a Saturday midday, was now entirely different. There were nearly no people, other than sellers, and they were really kind and welcoming. I was able to actually appreciate all the beautiful craft work from the stands, take many pictures, and actually interact with the locals, differently than the first time when it was so overwhelming I wanted to leave the place shortly after arriving. Once again I took my time appreciating the traditional way in which the Otavalians dress, specially the women – dresses full of lace with patches of Andean patterns in beautiful colours.
Having spent my last day in Otavalo among beautiful artisan crafts, friendly locals and amazing nature was the icing on the cake, and a perfect way to wish Ecuador goodbye.
The country truly left an incredible impression on me and I would say it is one of the most under rated countries in South America. Tourism seems to be growing fast though, so anyone considering visiting this marvelous part of earth should make their way as soon as they get a chance, as a great experience surely awaits!