YOU MUST GO TO THIS COUNTRY!
My first trip to Ecuador was in September of 2013. I spent the majority of my time in Quito and the surrounding area but also hit up Baños, Otavalo and the not to be missed Galapagos. Ecuador it self was spectacular, and Quito impressed me! I decided to spend most of my time in Quito because my friends live here and I knew that through them I could learn more about the culture which always appeals to me the most when I travel. TRUTH: it is always best with the locals! For more on Galapagos click here.
I absolutely love this country and wish I had seen more but at the same time after like a day in Quito I decided I will be back, no questions asked. My decision to spend the majority of my time in Quito and see less of the country overall was the best plan for me and no loss.
Reasons I loved the country so much:
1) First, the country is small on the map but you have no idea how much it has to offer. I think from one side to the other it takes only 13 hours to drive (think Seattle to San Francisco but with more windy roads). It is a tiny country yet it has great beaches, the Amazon Rainforest, high altitude mountains/volcanos, incredibly detailed churches, interesting and charming cities, nature galore, always sun being it is on the equator, interesting and carefree animals, and so, so much more. The country has much more to offer than I ever expected plus its size makes it fairly easy to see a lot. It has animals and insects only found here and tribes that still have yet to be discovered.
2) Second, the people are amazingly friendly, seriously, I met people everywhere. On the islands I met one local then met 5 more and all were super generous and amazing. I met people on the taxi out to get the plane and then got a free ride without waiting to the airport. I met an old lady on the bus to the equator line who was just so sweet to speak with. All of my friend´s family and friends were beyond nice. Even the taxi drivers were friendly.
3) Food was quite delish. It was not like woah the best there is but it was flavorful, plentiful, mildly healthy, distinct, fish and mariscos abound, and quite diverse.
In Quito I stayed with a friend from my MBA program, Jaime, and his family. The first night we went to La Ronda in the historic center which is a really cute area with narrow streets, white buildings, colorful flags, plenty of people, good restaurants and bars. We stopped to try some typical foods and met some of Jaime´s friends. It was a good first day getting a peak at Ecuador´s livelihood.
The second day I headed to the Equator…mitad del mundo. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Remember there are two places one is the monument and next to it is the GPS coordinate line. Both were cool. Mitad del Mundo is a city so it has lots of food, shops, entertainment, museums, plus the equator line. The GPS line is a museum and they show you some bizarre things and introduce the culture. Remember to bring your passport if you want a stamp in it!
I stuck around the third day in the city center, historic old town (Centro Histórico) and met with a Swiss professor I met from my semester exchange program at the University of Chile who moved to Quito the week prior. We just wandered around the historic center and went to a few museums (la Companía Church and Money Museum) all next door to eachother. I really liked the money museum and would recommend it entirely but only if you can read Spanish! No English there. I picked the museum because I wanted to know why Ecuador uses the US dollar. It explained how money arrived to S. Am via Lima, Peru, Panama and one other place and then spread. Ecuador was not one of the first countries and Chile was way late. Ecuador in the past had many problems with Sucres (the original local currency), one time with a bank hold because the value of gold went up and the government used the reserves and put a hold on the banks and then the central bank had a huge problems controlling the exchange rate of the currency that it was pretty much worthless for many years. Unable to control the value they switched to USD. Also the museum has some art from the famous Ecuadorian artist Victor Mideiros.
Quito where I spent most of my time is a charming city developed in the valley between huge mountains. It is high up, one of the highest capitals in the world (2,850 m or 9,350 ft). It was more modern than I expected, cleaner by my standards, had many cool areas, plenty to do, a very cool historic center with many beautiful churches that put many European cities churches to shame with the amazing detail and charm found in Quito´s churches. Public transit was a Metro bus and Trole bus that were efficient and avoided traffic but there were many additional buses that did not. An underground metro is currently being built. The sun is powerful and the sky is this stark blue, one I´ve never seen anywhere else – maybe it´s the altitude but it´s simply gorgeous. It can be cold but in general it is not bad. I for some reason thought Ecuador would be like Perú, one of its neighbors, but it was not. There were similarities but they are distinct countries! Nightlife was great and had a good mix all over town but the real party was at weddings, so if you ever are invited…GO!
I then went to the City of Baños (de Agua Santa) for a few days because I read that I could bike around there safely. It is a city a few hours from Quito by bus (Quitumbe station) and it is the city of hot springs – more so in high season…not summer. It is also full of year round outdoor adventure or just a relaxing party place. I spent my time there between thermals, hiking, biking and waterfalling (lol viewing them and rappelling them).
I went to two volcanic thermals to get a different feel for options in town. Yes, these thermals are heated by the many volcanos in the country (Tungurahua to be exact)! The first one I visited was the one just at the end of town (in Baños) by the waterfall and did so at night which was wayyy crowded but also amazing because the pools were super hot and then you had the icy one that just made it all better…AMAZING! This thermal was very popular with the locals – Termas de la Virgen. To switch things up I went to the other one in the day. It was next to the river that lava sometimes flows into, so it is often closed which it was the first two days. The second thermal was out of town a bit and you can easily go by bus but be aware that some go all the way up to the place whereas others will let you off early and you´ll have to walk up the hill…a nice 20-25 min. It had many pools of all temperatures and a cool shower massage area (hot and cold). Night at the thermals was way better in general.
I also did the Ruta de Cascadas by bike just like I wanted. Cycling along the road to view the waterfalls was a fairly downhill ride for a few hours followed by a bus back. I went early to avoid traffic on the thoroughfare and take my time. Once I got to the last waterfall on the Ruta I decided to go farther to Puyo which was hilly but a nice ride and great goal. The Ruta has like 5 waterfalls, one is sooo powerful and you get to go under it, be prepared for wet everything. There are a few other waterfalls you can take cable car things to visit the other side and get a closer view of them and you can even hike a bit on the other side and loop back over to the road. Canopy…aka ziplining was cheap and popular here too. A few areas had puenting which is similar to bungee jumping but is a very local version. I wanted to try puenting but I rode too early in the day and too fast and missed the one I wanted to do..buuuu. Next time! It took awhile to get to Puyo, some 65 km or 30 to 40 miles from Baños with a few stops along the way. Once I arrived in town I explored a bit…riding along the river trail was nice but took a while to find. I do recommend you try the jugo de caña which is sugarcane juice, it is surprisingly yummy! I got that somewhere on the ride over and it held back hunger until I arrived…but I was starving once I got in town. Puyo is the large gateway city to the Amazon. There are some nice animal and plant museums I would recommend in town but I did not have time. Once done with the tiny town of Puyo I caught the bus back (bike goes under bus no problem).
I also went canyoning in Baños, aka rappelling down waterfalls, it was an experience for sure though I´m not sure I would do it again. Though that last waterfall we rappelled was spectacular! At 45 meters in height you got to admire the falls all around you while you glided down the rope. So Cool! Also not scary because you go at your own pace but you do get plenty of waterfall force at times.
The last few days I hung out with Jaime at night and his friends mainly during the day. We went to the TeleferiQo which is in the city at an even higher altitude that you could feel it! I had no idea there was so much up there. There were rides and restaurants and at the top tons of trails that I would have liked to walk slowly on. Also did a tour of the old town at night which is recommendable since many buildings are well lit. If you speak Spanish, do the leyenda tour from La Ronda. The take you inside the historical buildings and tell you its interesting history and allow you to see areas the public is not allowed to see generally. It was very cool and the locations change every day. It only goes on Saturday….also bring a passport if you are around on a Saturday as you can enter the capital building until 10 pm!
My last day was spent in Otavalo, the craft market a few hours NE of Quito. There are many cool lakes to see around there and it is quite scenic. We stopped for food at Lago San Pablo, pictured above, and it was very pleasant. The markets had it all and prices were ok but I would not be one to recommend it unless you are driving that way for other reasons.
I really wished I could have done a few more things near Baños, like Cotopaxi the huge volcano or the Amazon since it seemed less visited but I am happy for the time I spent in Ecuador, loved everything and I will go back. I got super lucky on my flight back to Santiago and saw Cotopaxi from above, it was magnificent and magical.
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