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.
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.
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!
The mornings tend to be the best part of the day to explore, so get up early to enjoy any planned activities. Most days will see rain creeping in by the early afternoon.
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 dripping wet! We were in Mindo for 5 days, I'm not sure I could have stayed longer.
If you're after outdoor adventure in Ecuador, such as zip-lining or tubing then Mindo is the place to do it. Banos by comparison is crowded and the scenery not as nice. Activities in Banos were organised over bridges by the roadside. In Mindo, you have nothing but beautiful forest canopy ahead of you.
Places to Stay
$30 private double room with private bathroom, breakfast included.
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
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.
Tarabita and Waterfalls
Mindo is famous for its many waterfalls. Hiking to each one makes for an enjoyable day trip. Go to any agency in town for a map.
To access the waterfalls:
Take a taxi for about $6 and ask the driver to take you to the Tarabita (the cable car). It’s 2 hour hike uphill otherwise, which may be slightly ambitious ahead of the tough 3 hour waterfall hike.
The Tarabita ($5) 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).
Once you return to the Tarabita you can walk back to town (1 hour or so), or hitch a lift back.
Bird watching in the back garden
Try bird watching for an entire afternoon from the comfort of someone’s backyard for just $3! 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.
Most afternoons you are guaranteed to spot Toucans and every day you can watch 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!
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.’
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.
Places To Stay
This is a great base. Rooms are huge and the communal areas are very nice. 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
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.
The Biking Dutchman was one of the only companies who could take you as close to the summit as you could get for biking and off road through old lava fields, so we experienced cycling through several different terrains, with not a soul in sight!
I’m a novice cyclist at best 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 them 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.
The Quilotoa Loop
If you visit Ecuador and you don’t visit this crater or complete 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!
People approach the Loop differently – starting their hikes in different villages or by taking the roads or travelling by car, but in my opinion the best way is to do it is all on foot and away from the roads.
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 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 look back over the mountainous landscape from where you started your hike. It’s breath-taking and incredibly rewarding. 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 local treks from here are very beautiful and there are terrific accommodation options.
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 for the time that we had.
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 a good 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. We preferred Mindo in the north.
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
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. 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 a little.
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 overcrowded – there are better ones in Cuenca. Zip-lining and adventure sports are much nicer in Mindo.
A bike ride takes you mainly all downhill to all the waterfalls but the route follows a main highway for most of the way. It’s a little 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’ and at one point we got stuck with a crowd of people all waiting to access the waterfall path. The waterfall was big and powerful and nice to look at for a few minutes, until the crowds pushed you on.
I was very happy to get a lift back in the dedicated trucks that ferry people and their bikes to and from town.
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 a few days – for the hats, the thermal pools, the architecture and the food! Ecuadorian culture at its best.
Places to Stay
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).
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+
Novaqua - Located in Banos, Cuenca (don’t confuse this Banos for the main city of Banos)
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!
Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry
The best culinary experience I’ve had in Ecuador.
Great atmosphere, good people watching, lively, Ceviche is INCREDIBLE and the house white wine was lovely. Staff were friendly and efficient and everything was very affordable. Considering its location - right next to the Cathedral, I was really surprised how affordable and relaxed it was.
We came here for breakfast and dinner two days in a row!
Guayaquil is the big city in the south of Ecuador that doesn't often make it onto the itinerary unless you're flying out of there. It’s the grey concrete jungle of Ecuador.
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.
Bookings can be made in advance via Hostelworld.
Next stop on The Great Escape: Argentina
For highlights and travel tips for all countries I've travelled to click here.