Archive for the ‘Ecuador’ Category

Our last stop in Ecuador was Cuenca, the third largest city, and by our measure, the most beautiful.  Originally, we had scheduled at least another full day in Cuenca, but we stayed an extra day in Baños and our flight to Lima required us to get to Tumbes a day earlier than expected.  Oh well, we still had ample time to visit some of the sights that Cuenca had to offer.

In our South America guidebook it says that Quito and Cuenca have a bit of a rivalry as to who has the most beautiful historic architecture.  I’ll weigh in, Cuenca wins.

One of many beautiful buildings in the city center

We spent the morning ambling around and admiring the old and new cathedrals, the flower market, and the artisan market.  Unlike Quito we had no problem finding inexpensive coffee and small meals like this one.  A delicious tamale and fresh ground coffee near the Cathedral.

Buen provecho!

It is claimed that when the New Cathedral was constructed 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants could fit in the building.  It really was immense and beautiful.

New Cathedral from the plaza

New Cathedral from the mercado

In the artisan market which is municipally sponsored and features works by women artisans from around the country, Kristi and I found a great baby alpaca blanket for our eventual home back in North Carolina.

Stall with several typical crafts at the artisan market

After a typical lunch we hit the Museum of the Central Bank.  It is not uncommon for Central Banks in large cities to have some of the best museums with objects of cultural importance such as currency from the country’s history, works of art, and artifacts.

We weren’t allowed to take our camera in but this museum housed one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen… shrunken heads!  You’ll have to google it to see a photo (or try the one I stole from the Internet.  Sorry, Internet).  I am pretty sure these things were actual human heads.  Not some Halloween reproduction.  Weird-ass stuff, man.


Cuenca seemed like a great place to post up for a week or more and enjoy a laid back, friendly city with walkable streets and endless restaurants and cafes.  I wish we’d had another day or two, but we didn’t, so… Adios, Ecuador!

Kristi in the flower market


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After a few glorious days of sun and fun we reluctantly had to leave Baños and keep heading south to Cuenca.  Baños is already well-known by tourists, both foreigners and Ecuadorians alike, but it´s worth saying that we highly recommend it for anyone visiting Ecuador!

Baños has many sweet shops, including ones where men swing and hook taffy by hand! (Don´t tell the health department)

One of many market stalls selling sweets, cane sugar (the bamboo looking sticks), and oranges

No luck volcano spotting

Local delicacy, roasted cuy (guinea pig)

We caught an early bus to Riobamba where we would connect on to Cuenca.  We settled in for the 8 hour journey expecting a regular old bus ride.  After a few minutes on the winding road we were totally shocked to see Tungurahua volcano in all of it´s glory!  We scrambled to get the camera and hoped the moving shots would do it justice.  (They don´t, but almost!)


As you can see from the smoke plume, this guy is still puffing!  Scientists consider it currently erupting with major eruptions (spewing lava) as recent as April 2011!


Seeing Tungurahua peeking over this town gave me chills!

At this point we were totally awake and on the hunt for more awesome views.  Up until this point the weather hadn´t been cooperating on our drives through Ecuador but this day was off to a good start.   We weren´t disappointed!

Chimborazo covered in snow

The summit of Chimborazo is actually farther away from the center of the Earth than the summit of Everest.  Wow!


What a view

It´s safe to say that the bus ride from Baños to Riobamba is the most beautiful we´ve ever seen and our favorite ride to date!

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The Ecuador section of our trip turned out to be very active.  Mountain biking and hiking on Cotopaxi and Quilotoa was quite an adventure.  To follow that, we planned a trip to Baños, a small town famous for hot springs.  We had planned on a relaxing couple of days of mud baths and steaming hot spring water…

Waterfall from our hostel window in Baños

Baños cathedral

Courtyard of the cathedral

While Baños does have hot springs, they weren’t really our style.  After visiting the hot springs outside of Copán Ruinas, Honduras, it would’ve been hard to impress us.  So instead of a relaxing stop in Baños, we opted for MORE adventure!

Germ soup.

On our first full day we rented a couple of mountain bikes ($5 for the day) and set off downhill on the “waterfall route”.  The road was paved so the 20 or so kilometers was pretty easy except for having to ride through two freaky tunnels.  There were more tunnels along the route but fortunately the other ones had a way around.  There is nothing fun about a muddy, dark tunnel on a bike being passed by a semi truck.

First tunnel...zoom!

First waterfall

Locals´ trout farm in the Andes

There are several suggested stops along the route including bridge jumping, zip lines, and gondolas.  I guess I´m truly getting old, because swan diving off a bridge with rope tied to my feet no longer appeals to me.  The gondolas were even a little crazy, but after watching old people and young ladies ride across we went for it.  We rode what is essentially a hot air balloon basket hanging from a cable across the canyon and over the waterfalls known as Manto de la Novia.

Second waterfall

Gondola over Manto de la Novia...we´re next!

Scary fun!

I just realized I´m afraid of heights

20 meters upstream of Manto de la Novia

We rode to several falls but the best was saved for last: Pailón del Diablo.  This was one of the biggest, craziest falls we’ve ever seen.  The best part about it was that you could get within about a foot of the crushing flow and even crawl behind.  It was mostly safe, but it felt as if the falls were going to change course at anytime and sweep you away.

One foot away from Pailón del Diablo

Pailón del Diablo

Rainbow to finish the day

To get back from the bike trip we were supposed to be able to find small trucks that are paid to bring bikers back to Baños.  We never found these trucks so instead we used something from our Honduras playbook: the jalón.  We thumbed a ride with a local Ecuadorian family who were very nice and offered us a free ride back to town.  Just as in Honduras, the locals were very kind to outsiders, something we hope to emulate once we finally return to the USA. It was a great day and another awesome Ecuadventure.

View of Baños from the mirador (overlook)

The next day we hiked up to a overlook of town with hopes of also being able to see the continuously erupting volcano Tungurahua.  The hike was very steep but the views of town were worth the sweat.  Unfortunately, we had more bad luck volcano-spotting.  The clouds hid the snow-capped volcano.  We were quite disappointed, but we were to have better luck on the days to come…

More amazing pics of Baños in the next post!

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Exhausted from our two-day bike trip, we arrived back in Quito late on a Sunday afternoon.  We wandered around for a bit looking for food but to our dismay everything was closed.  Quito felt like a ghost town.  Eventually we found a half decent chain restaurant and ate dinner before turning in for an early night.

The little we had seen of Quito to this point had failed to impress.  So the next morning we were determined to get to the historic center of town and see what our guidebook was talking about when it called Quito one of the best renovated historic centers in Latin America.  Having been previously to Cusco, Peru and then to Cartagena, Colombia on this trip and finding them absolutely gorgeous colonial centers, I was ready to be seriously impressed by Quito.

We started at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, otherwise known as a huge church!   We bought tickets to enter and climb the towers but we had no idea how high they actually let you climb.  First it was several staircases up to the clock tower then began a series of spiral staircases and metal (fixed) ladders that led even higher!  We poked our faces through little cutouts in the concrete designs to see Quito sprawling out as far as the eye could see.

La Basilica

Church and courtyard (where you can also visit a therapist or dentist)

Climbing the towers

Oops eyes closed, but we´re in the clock tower!

Views of Quito

Quito, the other direction!

View of La Virgen de Quito

Crossing over the sanctuary ceiling to the other towers

OK, going to stop climbing soon, getting scary!

Big head!

Other highlights of the Basilica were the stained glass windows and the gargoyles out front that instead of depicting traditional monsters were actually forms of wildlife found on the Galapagos Islands.  Cool!



Instead of dwelling, I´ll sum up the rest of Quito by saying it just wasn´t our style.  A major theme we saw in Ecuador was graffiti, everywhere!  The weather, graffiti, and general city grime all added up to a not very impressive picture.  Travellers are also warned to be very careful in Quito and the fact that even locals didn´t go out after dark had us on edge most of the time.  In the end we decided to do one more day in order to visit La Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the Earth (Equator!) and then get the heck out of Quito.

So the following day, we set out to find the middle of the Earth.  Quito sure wasn´t going to make it easy!  After approaching 2 separate metro bus terminals, asking 3 city employees, and walking 15 blocks, we finally found the right bus.  At this point we were really missing Medellin´s super easy and clean metro system!  Quito´s city bus did have some added interest though in the form of a young guy with an 80´s style boombox on his shoulder busting out rap beats (for donations).

Mitad del Mundo park

The Mitad del Mundo park is kind of like a very small town – there are tons of crafts shops and restaurants all centered around a monument and a few museums.  We went through a couple of the small museums including an insectarium which had crazy bugs from all over Latin America and the world.  The science nerd in David was having a ball.

We´re in 2 hemispheres!

We took the obligatory picture supposedly straddling both hemispheres although the true center is actually a few hundred meters away, accessible with a guide.  Most of the restaurants were rather expensive but we did find a small locals only type of place with a set lunch for $2.50.  We had seen the dreaded “Chicken feet soup” on several Quito menus already but thought we were safe this day – almost, save for the single claw floating in mine 😉  Other than that it was a tasty soup and a good lunch!


Two days of exploring Quito felt like plenty to us and we were more than ready to hit the road to greener pastures.  Baños to be exact, land of waterfalls and volcanoes!

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We were exhausted after the first day of biking and trekking around on the volcano, Cotopaxi, in the central highlands of Ecuador.  After a beautiful car ride through the Andes, we settled in at a small lodge in the pueblo of Quilotoa, situated on the rim of the Quilotoa crater.  The rooms were basic and chilly, but  fortunately each room was equipped with a wood stove which was quite charming.  I was supposed to get up every couple of hours to keep it burning, but after we fell asleep, getting up was not even a faint possibility.


Day two began with a breathtaking descent into the crater.  The views from the rim where we began were amazing and the entire trail in and out of the crater provided equally stunning views.  The crater was formed about 800 years ago. It is about two miles wide and over 800 feet deep in the deepest parts.  The crater lake sits at over 12,000 feet elevation.

Quilotoa Crater... wow

Roberto (guide) called this his postcard shot

Roberto, Casper, and Kristi on the rock formation jutting out into the lake

On the hike we passed several families with their donkeys, mules, and horses.  Some were transporting potatoes to sell and others were offering tired gringos rides out of the crater on horse or mule.  We were definitely tempted, but were a bit scared of being on horseback for some of the rugged terrain.

Two small boys leading their beasts down into the crater

Striking a pose on a cliff at the crater bottom

Despite the draining first day and the steepness of the trail, we didn´t have much trouble getting down then hiking back out.  However, this was just part one of the day´s adventure.  At the crater rim there were a few shops where Kristi bought a nice alpaca scarf from a local family.

They had some great stuff, wish we had more room in our packs!

After our hike we got back on the bikes for another 20 km ride through rural countryside in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Plenty of uphill on Day 2

The first few kilometers were a mud bath and we weren´t exactly enjoying ourselves but as soon as we began descending, the dirt roads dried up and the only danger was getting distracted by the views and the people we passed.

Alpaca with saddle ready for load

Cute donkey


Despite not-so-perfect weather, our two-day mountain biking trip was something we´ll never forget.  Quilotoa is an incredible town and hike and still retains its pueblo charm.  The Ecuadorian campo is a must see for anyone visiting, and we suggest a bike trip to fully appreciate the scenery and the local people waving and greeting you along the way.

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After a few days in Guatapé we said goodbye to Colombia and flew from Medellin to Quito, Ecuador. Upon arrival we took  taxi to our hotel and set in to rest for the evening and attempt a rapid acclimatization.   To give you an idea, Medellin is at an altitude of 1,500 m (4,921 ft), Quito lies at 2,800 m (9,200 ft), and where we were headed the next day was even higher!

One of the activities I researched ahead of our trip was a mountain biking trip on Cotopaxi and the Quilotoa crater.  While David is a fairly experienced mountain biker, I am more of a casual beach cruiser type of bike rider.  I was assured by the owner of the tour company that so long as you could ride a bike then it would be no problem.  He also said things like ¨it´s not a race¨and ¨take your time and go as slow or fast as you want.¨  This will come into play later on in the story.

Our guide picked us and one other person up from our hotel and we headed off for the tour.  The weather was again grey and dreary.  As we drove through the mountains to reach Cotopaxi the clouds were literally so low it felt as if they were pushing down on us.  The weather seemed less than ideal but our guide wasn´t worried so we forged on.

At 5,897 m (19,347 ft), Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and the second highest mountain peak in Ecuador!  It also has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.   On a clear day you can see it´s snow capped cone towering over the highland plain and the valley below.

Our guide drove us through Cotopaxi park and up to a small museum where we took a break to stretch our legs and sample some coca tea, made from the leaves of the evil coca plant.

Té de coca

Yes, the coca plant is processed to make cocaine but the unprocessed leaves are perfectly legal and have been used for centuries by native people to ward off altitude sickness.  When I studied abroad in Peru we drank lots of coca tea, ate coca hard candy, and chewed the leaves directly. It was David´s first time trying the tea and we both thoroughly enjoyed it!  The flavor is similar to green tea but less grassy.


After our little break it was time to continue on up the volcano to our starting point.

Our ride

Along the way we passed a foggy field with mossy boulders and wild horses grazing.  It was absolutely gorgeous!

Wild horses

Throughout the entire ride through the park the vegetation was really interesting.  We saw everything from pine forest, lichen fields, low scrubby brush with what looked like sea grasses, and wild flowers, up until we reached 4,000 m (13,123 ft) where the vegetation stopped.  From there the ground was covered in dark crumbly soil and small rocks.

We stopped the car at a parking lot on the North face to begin our hike up to the climber´s refuge, a permanent camp set up for those climbing to the summit.  At this point it was freezing rain, windy, and very cold!  I hadn´t remembered that a hike was part of the trip but there was no time to chat as our native guide took off up the mountain.

The crumbly soil and the steep inclination made it a bit difficult to ascend but the real trouble was the altitude!  Some people describe tiring easily and feeling short of breath but for me the main bother was the feeling that my heart was actually beating in my skull!  My heartbeat was very fast and the pressure in my head was also uncomfortable.  Coupled with the poor weather and even poorer visibility I was starting to wonder what was the point of this hike?!  At around 4,700 m (15,419 ft) I found a nice rock to sit on and wait while the boys forged on to the refuge.

David and Casper at the refuge, 15,780 ft

From there it was a quick descent to the car where we picked up our bikes and helmets and set off on our further descent down the mountain.  I was pretty nervous as I stared down the steep roads that zigged, zagged, and switch backed their way down the side of Cotopaxi, but there was nothing to do but go for it!  The dirt road was bumpy, rocky, slippery, and soft in places and my whole body felt like it was in an agitator!  The first 20 minutes was pretty much torture with the freezing rain – our hands had only the cheap, thin gloves provided by the tour and I almost thought my poor fingers were frozen solid!

Zooming down

After we made it back to the vegetation line the conditions improved and we were no longer being pelted by freezing rain.  My hands began to thaw out and the crazy switch back roads were now straighter and had less incline.  That´s not to say that I didn´t still have a death grip on my brakes!

A slight break in the clouds to reveal Cotopaxi´s snowy peak (look closely!)

At this point we had reached the highland plain and the roads leveled out.  Thank goodness!  From here it was pretty smooth sailing down to meet the car at the original tea stop.  The sun even came out for a few minutes and we had to peel off jackets and gloves.

Flat roads!

When we met back up with the car lunch and a rest were waiting for us!  My head was still pounding but was much less severe than during the hike.  Knowing we still had a couple of hours in the car to our next destination I took a Dramamine and settled in for a backseat nap!

David, captivated by the Andes, stayed awake and took these pictures along the way.

Mountain drive

Blue skies peeking out!

I woke up from my nap in time to see our arrival to the small mountain community of Quilotoa, our lodging area for the night and the starting point of the next day´s bike ride!  That´s right, there´s more!  Stay tuned for Part 2…


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