From Baños to Cuenca and beyond

Baños is Ecuador’s capital of extreme sports, sugarcane taffy, and, as it seems, pizza restaurants. We spent a couple of days in the little town to get our adrenalin pumping with canyoning (that is: rappelling down waterfalls) and try out their famous thermal baths (hence the name Baños).

The former we found on one of the many adventure sports agencies around town that offer more or less the same services for more or less the same prices. We chose MTS Adventure because they were at the top of Tripadvisor and would give us photos and videos of the adventure. We were not disappointed as we got our own, personal guide who took us up into the jungle where we found some nice, steep, and a bit scary waterfalls to rappel. We got wet and our hearts pumping from the adrenaline, and we had a great time. Mathias chose to walk face-down the last waterfall “Rambo style”, just to show how much of a man he is..

Tuva going down

Walking down in style

We’ve visited thermals baths before in Colombia (San Vicente), but the baths in Baños were very different. This was a really social thing for the locals and it seemed that half the town had come to enjoy the hot waters in the pools that were the size of a medium sized living room. “Sild i tønne” (sardines in a barrel?) describes it pretty well and we really got to know the locals in more than one way.

Tuva and Baños

The extreme sports didn’t stop in Baños, as bus trips in Ecuador can be both a beautiful adventure and a near-death experience. While in Baños we saw a news report about the road accidents being the number one cause of death in Ecuador, and buses being a major part of those accidents due to tired drivers, old buses, alcohol and general risktaking. We decided to do no more night buses as those are the most dangerous, but our bus trip to Cuenca in thick fog was almost as bad. Our busdriver would drive by trucks in the fog (we could only see about 10 m) in a turn with double lines, only just making it before a couple of cars were coming in the opposite direction. We (at least Tuva) feared for our lives as we had a front row experience to the madness!

A horse in the clouds

Other than the hazardous driving, bus trips in Ecuador is an interesting experience as you drive through the beautiful countryside and see mighty mountains, Llamas and other animals on the roadside, and the daily life of the indigenous people whisking by. We were continuously stunned by the scenery unfolding as we made our way south. Just getting on and off the bus is an experience as you often get hushed in just as the bus is leaving the station and often have to get on/off in speed. The buses all cost about 1-1,5$ per hour and are reasonably comfortable.

Beautiful scenery from the bus

Our final stop in Ecuador was Cuenca, a larger city and the richest in the country. Many foreigners live here and it is a picturesque city with its colonial buildings and narrow streets. We didn’t stay long, so we really only had time for a city bus tour which allowed us to see all the sights in just a couple of hours. All in all Ecuador has been a beautiful and interesting country ranging from Galapagos (which really isn’t similar to the rest of Ecuador at all) to the Andean mountains and the bigger cities with its old towns. We could definitely see ourselves coming back and spending more time here.

Spears of the new cathedral

Cuenca Eagle view

Masters of the waterfall

Look ma', no hands!

Some flowers in the park

All photos from Ecuador can be found here.

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Awesomeness in Quilotoa

One of the places we had heard about from several people both before and during our trip is Quilotoa in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. Fortunately this was on the way south towards the Peruvian border from Quito, so it was an easy stopover to make!

Quilotoa is an active volcano (though it hasn’t had an eruption for more than 200 years) 3800 metres above sea level. In its crater it holds an emerald green lake that together with its surroundings is said to take your breath away. The area around also has some of the most beautiful hiking trails in Ecuador, and yes, it did deliver!

Awesome Quilotoa

Just the bus journey was an adventure as the mighty Andean mountains surround you and you sit in awe of how the Ecuadorians manage to live here. The hills are lined with acres in 50 shades of green and the highest tops are surrounded in a skirt of clouds..

Canyon

We did a day trek from the Quilotoa village to Chugchilan, which took us alongside the crater rim for an hour, down from the volcano and through small farms and a more or less forsaken village, and finally down a steep valley and up again 600 sweaty and hard metres. We started at 3800 metres and finished at 3200 metres, with 2600 as the lowest point, the whole trip took about 5 hours including many breaks. The high altitude makes even crouching down to take a photo and getting back up an exercise, and with a landscape like this we took a lot of photos!

On the edge!

Trail along the rim

Across the valley to Chugchilan

Travel tips to Quilotoa

To get to the Quilotoa area you first have to take a bus to Latacunga and then a bus to one of the smaller villages from there. We used Chugchilan, north of Quilotoa, as a base and took our day-trip from there, but more hardcore hikers might want to leave some of their luggage in Latacunga and hike/bus from village to village around the Quilotoa loop. Either way it’s definitely worth a visit as you will see landscape like nowhere else. We almost felt like Frodo and Sam in Lord of The Rings as we gazed upon the huge volcano far away and the hike we had done :)

Chugchilan is a very small village with three hostels/hotels. We stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest which is the cheapest option of three. Private room was $12 per person including basic breakfast and dinner. There really isn’t much to do in the village, but there are many other day-trip options in the area.

To leave Chugchilan the only public bus is at 4 or 5 am. For those who like to sleep at night it’s easy to arrange private transportation to one of the larger villages with more frequent buses, we chose Zumbahua.

Adventurers

A Ecuadorian girl and her puppies

Andean hills

Instead of a stroller..

On the other side

More photos from Quilotoa and the rest of our travels in Ecuador can be found here.

Purple ghosts in Quito

After our amazing days in the Galapagos we had a couple of days together with Marie in Quito before we went our separate ways, Marie to California to get loco at the Coachella festival, and us south towards the Peruvian border.

It was in the middle of Easter week and we certainly hit the jackpot of when to visit Quito as the city is known for its grand Easter parades in the streets! The biggest parades are on Good Friday and we witnessed suffering Jesuses dragging their heavy crosses down the street, with a sea of purple ghosts around them, mourning Marias and marching band music that could make you cry – both because of the sad melodies and because half of the band was out of tune. All together it created an eerie mood in the otherwise light streets of Quito.

Purple ghosts

Jesus in front

Surrounding the parades was a sea of people, some of them dressed up in their national costumes, a lot of street vendors selling anything from candy and deep fried food to brooms or live goldfish, and children eating candy and ice creams as if it were their last day on earth. In many ways it was kind of like witnessing Norway’s national day, May 17th, but with purple ghosts and sad music.

We stayed briefly in the Mariscal area of Quito (Gringolandia) and the Old town area, and for us the Old town was much more interesting place to stay at than Mariscal. The streets and houses have an old charm to them and you are very close to a lot of nice sights. However, we learned a lesson when the hotel we had booked a month ahead in Old town suddenly didn’t have our reservations and were fully booked on Easter Thursday – always confirm by mail or phone after booking through third party sites! (Booking.com, Hostelworld.com, etc.)

The streets of old town

Marie & Tuva by La Ronda

Other than the great Easter parades we also took the cable car up to 4050 metres (world’s second highest teleferico), which gave us a good view over the city and surrounding areas (and also a bit lightheadedness), and we took a day-trip to the Otavalo market, north of Quito. The bus-rides takes about 3-4 hours in total from Old town and we ended up only spending about 2 hours there before returning home, so it’s worth either going there very early or maybe spending the night in Otavalo for market-buffs.

Basilica del Voto Nacional

The little church

Reaching for th sky

Tuva almost buying a shawl

Alpaca blankets

Old lady selling her merchandise

More photos from Quito and the rest of our travels in Ecuador can be found here.

Amazing Galapagos

After 3 hours on board an AeroGal plane and a short stop in Guayaquil we finally saw the Galapagos archipelago in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The big splurge of our 7 month travels is a cruise in the Galapagos with G Adventures and we didn’t have a clue what was really awaiting us..

The bus door opened and an awful stench met us as we arrived the dock of San Cristóbal, one of the main islands of Galapagos. The stench came from 100-something sea lions that had found the shadowed benches on the dock to be the perfect place to relax during the hot hours. They were literally everywhere and didn’t mind 16 amazed tourists hurrying by to get to the boat “Daphne” for a 5-day Galapagos cruise.

Look, sea lions!

Daphne

This was only a preview of what was to come. We spent the next 5 days on 7 islands and saw enough sea lions, iguanas and boobies (heh) to last a lifetime. The real magic of the Galapagos is how close you get to the wildlife, as if they just recognize us as another friendly species living along them on the islands. Many of the species don’t have any natural predators and so they don’t mind us coming as close as half a meter, even sticking our big cameras in their faces just evoked curiosity of seeing their own reflection in the camera lenses.

Even though Galapagos is a major tourist destination they have many regulations on the islands to keep the natural fauna. All visitor sites (about 50) have certain paths that you are allowed to walk on, and they only cover a small part of the island, and in addition only a limited number of visitors are allowed on an island each day (one island we visited was only 2 boats and 16 tourist per day).

Lazy pup

Mathias Attenborough

First contact

The marine life in Galapagos is also spectacular and we got to experience it with snorkeling trips almost every day, where we got to swim with sea lions, marine iguanas (and see it feast on the algae on a rock), sea-turtles, a lot of fish in different sizes, and even a couple of penguins swimming past us as fast as torpedoes. We saw some sharks and dolphins in the waters, but didn’t get to experience them close-by underwater (though others in our travel company did with the sharks).

Tuva and the turtle

A penguin!

Look, a Marine Iguana!

Our Galapagos itinerary was as follows:

  • Day 1: San Cristóbal with hundreds of sea lions everywhere
  • Day 2: Santa Fé island with lots of sea lions and cactus, snorkeling with sea lions and turtles, sailing to South Plazas island with one of the largest population of iguanas
  • Day 3: Genovesa island (Darwin bay) with thousands of birds (mostly Frigate birds, Galapgos seagulls and various Boobies), snorkeling (unfortunately no hammer-head sharks that day, but a conveyor belt of sting rays), more bird-watching at Prince Philip’s steps where we saw a ton of Masked Boobies and some owls.
  • Day 4: Santiago Island (Sullivan bay) with giant lava formations and lots of red crabs, snorkeling with marine iguanas and penguins, sailing with the dolphins to Rabida island with the red sand and green, toxic, brackish water, some lazy sea lions and some Pelikans, more snorkeling with sea lions and turtles
  • Day 5: early morning boat safari at Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz Island, where we saw the lots of rays venting their fins above water, baby sharks and turtles swimming in the mangrove

Posing together

Male frigate bird 1

Frigate feathers

Coming out of the dark

About traveling in the Galapagos

There are mainly two ways of seeing the Galapagos. Either you book a tour with a company like G Adventures, where you can cruise to several islands, or you can fly to one of the four inhabited islands of the Galapagos and take day-trips from there. The first option is the most expensive, but either way you have to pay the 100$ entrance fee to the Galapagos national park.

The luxury you get with a cruise is that you easily can see a lot of the Galapagos islands, even the most remote, while doing day trips will be in proximity of the inhabited islands (the bigger islands). You can also book a cruise once on the islands, but we heard that the best ones are usually booked in advance so it can be difficult to find a cruise and you’ll probably end up with the economy option, which means dorms, fewer amenities and not as good guide

We were very happy with our cruise (Mathias could even want to do the 8-day cruise) as we had good cabins in the boat (slept very well), good and varied food, good itinerary and a good guide. It was the big splurge of our travels and we’re happy we did it!

We booked our G Adventures trip (the Voyage Galapagos – Northern Islands) on the G3 boat (Daphne) through Kilroy (and our very good friend/travel agent Marie).

Masked Boobie level 1

Masked boobie level 5 (final)

Another red footed boobie in tree

Galapagos Seagull chick

Dolphin spin

Bartolome island in the distance

Cruise into the sunset

Even more photos from the Galapagos can be found here.