Enjoying Ecuador

Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Using the old adage - once bitten, twice shy - we decided to personally go to the bus station to get our tickets between La Paz and Cusco. It meant getting up at 6.30am, which was far from ideal, however was a much better proposition than the thought of repeating the 20+ hour bus journey back to Cusco...

Before that there was another potential spanner thrown into the works as it was a national holiday and therefore a distinct possibility of the bus station being closed. When they say it's a national holiday they mean it's a NATIONAL holiday...however fortunately the buses to Peru weren't impacted that much and Emily, Joao and myself settled into our seats for the (relatively) short bus trip of 11 hours back into Peru.

No wonder it only took 11 hours they took a different route and crossed at clearly the main Peru-Bolivia border rather than the 'let's scam the tourists' border crossing that we'd endured before.

Lesson learned for Alan - for long bus journeys always personally go to bus stations to get your ticket. Travel agents can't always be trusted to do this and they're more costly to boot.

This was Joao's first visit to Cusco and I think the 4th time I'd visited. However we both equally enjoyed being there. I really, really think Cusco is a great place and it would take me a long time to get tired of it. However, like Emily, I was most definitely tired of something...and that was...buses.

It would have been about a 40 hour bus journey to get from Cusco to Ecuador. Contemplating that was enough to make us 'do a Tony' and redecorate our trainers so we stuck our hands quickly and firmly into the bottom of our pockets and stumped up the cash for a flight from Cusco to Lima then change airlines to the Northern Peru city of Piura. $150 well spent.

It would have cost more to send one of our bodies home...as if we had to do it by bus, one of us would have killed the other...no doubt in that.

Piura is in the North of Peru and a big contrast to where Emily had recently been. It is in the desert next to the Pacific and hot. Made a change from freezing your chuckies off at 5,000m. Though being a cold hearted sod I actually prefer to be cold than sweating like I did in Piura.

Nothing much to say about Piura except like so many other places I have no idea how they make money but someone must be making a tidy sum as there is a huge new cineplex opened in the middle of town, lots of new shops selling electrical goods and it was hopping at 11pm. So much so we had trouble finding a place to eat.

Now I wish we hadn't found a place to eat as I hadn't learnt my lesson from Cusco and let Emily order an unknown chicken dish. This time it wasn`t chicken`s balls but chicken`s guts and they are mighty chewy I can tell you. Emily sensibly and gracefully allowed me to be Queen`s taster so can`t confirm their chewiness. You'll just have to take my jaw's word for it.

We hadn't come to Puria to visit it but solely as a means to get to Ecuador. So we hopped on a bus across the border along with a Colombian/Swiss guy (unusual combo) and an Ecuadorian lad he'd bumped into. They were all concerned about their luggage walking off the bus, so one of them sat on one side of the bus and the other on the other side of the bus and at every stop they'd make sure their stuff didn't go walkies.

Normally I would have thought this was overkill but I had heard lots of tales about luggage being stolen off buses in Ecuador that Emily and I did the same. We'd parted with Joao in Cusco so it was back to the two of us to look after ourselves. The fact that the bus driver just flung our bags onto the bus without giving us any luggage tags was a further red flag that all might go a bit pear shaped.

Fortunately there was no re-shaping of fruit of any sort and we passed into the lusciousness of Ecuador. Coming from the Peruvian desert the landscape was much more to my liking. It was hilly, moist and covered in those tree and plant things which keep our world looking so mighty fine.

The bus took us to the city of Loja. We'd thought about staying thereas it was advertised as being a pleasant highland city having won international awards for its parks and...recycling garbage...

First impressions coming in left us entirely underwhelmed so we hopped onto the next bus and descended down and down to the gringo hangout of Vilcabamba.

We were told before that it was a firm stop on the gringo trail. Might be at other times of the year and it certainly had plenty of places to stay, however there weren't many fellow gringos around when we were there. Fine by us...it would have been more lively with more folk around but we had a cracking time in Vilcabamba.

We stayed at easily the best accommodation on all our trip. A little hotel called 'Le Rendezvous' run by a French couple. It consisted of 6 or or so bungalows set around a garden, each with modern interiors, modern beds AND modern bathrooms. Oh the luxury, it was hard to leave.

We spent a lot of our time in the hammocks outside our bungalow either reading books from the extensive hotel library or gazing out at the valley surrounding the village. They even served us breakfast at our bungalow of homemade bread, eggs and freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Not exactly ground breaking on a global hospitality scale however it was ground breaking for our trip. Emily had finally worn me down from being a skin flint to stay somewhere nice and you know what? I actually really liked it...but don't tell her that.

Vilcabamba is well known mostly due to its climate which is warm but not hot or humid. They advertise it as the "Valley of Longevity" with local people often living to over 100 due to the mix of sublime water, climate and beautiful surroundings. I didn't see anybody looking that old which either means they are doing a really good job at staying young or these are slight white lies.

Either which way it's made this area popular with US baby boomers retiring there as they strive to live forever...The result being a mini housing boom which is presumably fuelled too by Ecuador's currency being the US dollar. I didn't mention that before did I however Ecuador is like an annex of the USA as it uses the US dollar.

It felt well weird at first but I really liked it. They also intermingle using their own coins, however apart from that it's just the same. I am to led believe they chose to change from the original currency of Ecuadorian Sucre to US$ to maintain a stable currency and as their main export is oil which is priced globally in US$. Boring money lesson over...

While Emily got some much needed R&R I did the two main activities of Vilcabamba - hiking and horseback riding. There is allegedly a third one - slurping down hallucinogenic cactus juice called San Pedrillo. However that wasn't on my menu of activities.

I hiked a large hill overlooking the village, which had the most stunning of views across the valley. I spent ages up there watching the world go slowly by (and because I was out of puff) then decided to continue the looping trail. This proved to be very good and nearly very bad.

Coming over the crest of a ridge suddenly in front of me where 3 condors sitting on the trail staring at me. They are huge birds and stared for a second or so sizing me up then took off and circled around the hill for the next 10 minutes or so.

One second they were gliding on the thermals then the next swooping down the steep sides of the hill in search for prey then hovering back up again.

They were so elegant...rubbish at catching anything...but elegant all the same. Lamentably I have no photos as I left my camera in the hotel as we'd been warned of robbers on this hill.

Being on a bird life high I happily stomped along the trail, however the trail got less and less obvious until I had no inkling of where it was. I had been given a hand-drawn map so knew where I was meant to be heading however the undergrowth was getting thicker and thicker and soon enough I would be off the side of the hill and unable to see the road I was heading for.

There was no-one as far as I could see within a mile of me and Emily had gone back to the hotel earlier - so I was starting to get concerned and decided to retrace my steps back. Again I could see where I had to get to but could I get there, could I heck.

The ridge I needed to get to was about 100m above me and the sides of the hill was as steep and skiddy as the undergrowth was thick. So I tried various different ways that looked like trails, invariably having to push and run my way through spider webs.

Normally spiders don't bother me however these were big lads - similar to the ones I saw in Laos and I was getting scared that it would be dark soon so I wasn't particularly 'enjoying' this wildlife experience.

Luckily after about an hour and 2 litres of sweat later I found the right way back and quick marched up and over the hill back to the haven of the village.

Now the horse riding was much less scary, but much more sore as I had forgotten how painful it is to bounce about on a horse when it's cantering. It was fine galloping as you can move with the rhythm of the horse but cantering really, really hurts.

I only did the 4 hour trek however was well saddle sore by the end of it and feeling empathy for John Wayne and his fellow cowboys.

Saying that...the trek was great and I got to see some amazing scenery, go up and down some wildly steep trails, splosh through rivers and hurtle along - sometimes hanging on for dear life with my cowboy hat strangling me and other times thinking I should take this up professionally.

Got to amuse Emily too as we cantered into the town centre like conquering heroes. My British sensibilities prevented me however from any yeehahhing or similar unsavoury behaviour.

So we 'did' Vilcabamba...I hate that expression 'did' you can't see somewhere totally in a short visit, regardless of what others might say.

So we 'saw and enjoyed' a wee bit of Vilcabamba then we headed north towards the Capital - Quito. To break up the trip - you know how much we hated long bus journeys by now - we stopped off at the Cultural Capital of Ecuador...Cuenca.

Arriving in Cuenca we'd been hounded by a tout to stay in their hostel - "Capitolio". Considering it had good right ups and remembering that we are lazy bums we went what the heck. Well as can happen with a lot of places that get into a guidebook they don't need to try anymore as they are guaranteed visitors, so they don't try...and it had gone firmly down the pan.

Now being (semi) savvy travellers we took the room but didn't pay up front or unpack our stuff and I went for a look about and stumbled on what proved to be my favourite hostel so far - Verde Limon hostel. So we said thanks but no thanks to the first place and changed hostels.

The bathroom facilities weren't exactly stellar however the place had a cool vibe...oh goodness me I'm now sounding like a hippy traveller as well as smelling like one...plus large colourful rooms and most importantly a great communal area with fun people working there.

We stayed there for 4 or 5 nights and nearly every night we shared lots of wine and beers with the staff before them taking us and other hanger-ons out to different bars or restaurants.

The most fun night was undoubtedly going to a salsa club. I had tried salsa in Guatemala and it soon became apparent that my 30 minute of shoogling my hips there didn't entitle me to "own" the dancefloor of any self respecting Ecuadorian salsa club.

Nevertheless it was great packed, cramped, hot, sweaty fun in this club which could have doubled as a wine cellar.

Great, great night and it was closely followed next night by a birthday party for a guy that worked at the hostel who Emily dubbed 'Iron Maiden' due to his obsession with lousy British heavy metal music.

He might have a lousy taste in music however he's not afraid to get up for a spot of flamenco dancing or to join in on the triangle at impromptu jam sessions. Fair play to the boy.

Now Cuenca is the 3rd largest city in the country, after the port city of Guayaquil and Quito, and turned out as advertised to be mightily cultural.

And no that doesn't mean it has the best selection of bars in the country...though I think it may have...it means it has the greatest selection of museums and art galleries.

There is lots of them scattered around the city, ranging from pottery, modern art, religion to banking...well not actually banking but it is called the Central Bank Museum and in my opinion was the finest one.

A few cities have Central Bank museums and I think the name is more to do with it's location, variety of exhibits and importance rather than it's financial credentials. Though this particular one did have an automated bill changing machine outside it which proved to be useful as it was so difficult to split a $20 note.

I digress...not for the first time...the Central Bank museum was well worth the visit with it's displays on Inca archaeology - it's built on top of an old settlement which is partially reconstructed in the museum's grounds - and Ecuadorian ethnic groups and cultures.

Really interesting were the traditional festival masks which looked like they were made by Disney or for a horror movie.

However undoubtedly the highlight for me - as it pandered to my schoolboy taste for all things gross - were the shrunken heads...

They were scarily realistic and just fascinating. I kept looking at them and thinking...naaah, they can't be real...then staring at them again. The scary side of them didn't appeal to me as frankly I am a big jessie and don't like to be scared, however I do like to be fascinated and they certainly did that.

Continuing on the cultural theme we got to enjoy a biannual painting exhibition of contemporary art from all over South America. Different exhibits were tastefully housed in buildings scattered around the city centre.

So all in all Cuenca I would say richly deserved it's mantle as cultural capital of Ecuador.

Now being full to the brim with culture we continued onto the capital of Quito.

Like it's Bolivia brethren La Paz - Quito is set in a volcanic crater however it isn't dominated by it in the same way that La Paz is.

Importantly the city is split quite distinctively into the Old City and New City.

The Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as is Cuenca) and has spectacular churches and colonial architecture. Something which sadly La Paz lacks. The churches are amazing and Emily was all about them.

For someone not religious the girl sure likes her churches and there was more than enough to satisfy her in Quito.

She gave two big thumbs up to one called La Compania which is a Jesuit cathedral that has been restored in a manner more spectacular than I'd ever set eyes on. If ever there is a world shortage of gold leaf this church will have been the main reason for it.

My personal favourite was the Iglesia de San Francisco as it was really old looking, and felt lived in with it's ancient sturdy wooden floors throughout.

Or maybe the main reason I liked it so was that outside I felt special because a groups of school boys interviewed and filmed me for their English project.

Undoubtedly I got my 5 minutes of fame in an Ecuadorian high school so I can now tick that off my list of "Things to do before I die". Glad about that as it was looking like a particularly tough one to achieve...

You might think that the Old City with it's olde worlde charms would be the place to stay. DON'T...it's not safe at night which we were repeatedly told.

The place to stay is the New City which is a short taxi ride from the Old City. It doesn't have the charm of the Old City however what it does have is the best restaurants in Ecuador, a strip of bars which are bit like an Ecuadorian version of Bourbon Street and a ultra modern plaza with a great fondue restaurant.

Also the hotel areas have security guards along every street at night making it so safe that you'd never know that they had such things as robbers in Quito. There is...Makes it more expensive however safety over expense is the key here.

Ecuador meaning Equator in Spanish is unsurprisingly located across the Equator...The middle of the world is only a short hop, skip and a jump from Quito so we went for a wee nose at it.

There is a large monument there right on the equator line. Or rather they thought it was then discovered later that it was actually a 150 metres further up the road. That's close enough as far as I am concerned.

Which seems to be a sentiment shared by the local authorities as they worked this out over a hundred years ago and haven't shifted it yet.

Silly us went on a Sunday and it was mobbed and therefore had to endure Ecuadorian queuing or should I say queue jumping. Most people stand in an orderly queue then others just blatantly jump it, however nobody seems to get upset. I don't get it.

Anyway it was kind of surreal standing on both hemispheres at one time and my only regret was that I didn't check for Emily's Dad whether the toilet water when flushed spins in a different direction on the Southern hemisphere to that in the North. Sorry Mr Frizzell I'll try and make it up to you.

Having seen the middle of the earth we were going to be hard pushed to top that.

I had wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands, however after speaking to a few people who'd been there I decided that I didn't have enough time to do it justice. When I go I want to have 2 weeks to see it properly - an 8 day cruise plus a few days to explore the islands myself. I met too many people who wished they'd gone there for longer.

Mind you I will probably need to return ASAP as the Ecuadorian government are reputed to be restricting the number of visitors soon and increasing the already hefty entrance fees. You've got to applaud them really as they are committed to keeping the islands as unspoilt by humans as possible.

So no Galapagos Islands for us, instead we headed to the coast to chill for the last few days of our trip and to visit the "poor man's Galapagos islands" - Isla de la Plata.

It's definitely no Galapagos Islands with the variety of animals, however I think it's similar in that the wildlife there are so unused to (and therefore unafraid) of humans that you can get really close to them.

The most impressive birds there are frigate birds and blue footed boobies. I won't give the obvious jokes...however I did get to see a few fine pairs that day...

The frigate birds were probably as impressive with the males blowing out their red coloured throats in (shameless) mating displays.

However, let's face it a bird named after a small naval vessel just doesn't have the same comedy impact as one called Boobies...

Isla de la Plata is easily visited from the fishing village of Puerto Lopez which is convenient as that's where we were staying at in a super chilled hostel. I can't remember what it's called as it made me so chilled out.

I wasn't alone in this as their seemed to be a bit of a 'chill' epidemic about with a few people staying in the area for more than 4 weeks. Now that's a lot of time to spend wandering along the beaches or watching fishermen bringing in their catch while fending off vultures. Mind you they could have gone to the local night-club novelly built into an old boat...oh no they couldn't as someone had set it alight...

More likely they went surfing which I gave a whirl. Trouble was that in Puerto Lopez there was hardly any waves and my instructor only spoke Spanish. So my first foray into surfing wasn't a roaring success, and I was hoping for better things at the surfing mecca of Montanita.

I can't say I got on much better there and couldn't even blame it on the waves or instructor this time as they were both great.

Must be due to my offset sense of balance and intense desire to swallow as much sea-water as humanly possible.

I'll probably try it again, however I think snowboarding is a much better use of your time. Surfers seem to spend way too much time aimlessly floating about looking out for a wave which they're only going to get ride for a few seconds anyway. Clearly the finer points of surfing are lost on me.

Montanita is a weird but appealing place. It has the shortest main street I've ever seen - it was barely 100m long and is lined with bars, restaurants and surf shops. Perfectly set up for all the tourists that flock there. Be it gringos or the young and the beautiful from Guayaquil who make the 4 hour journey there every weekend. Most of the locals appear to be surfer dudes and mix well together with all the tourists - regardless of their birth place.

The partying goes onto 5 am every morning and there are people sitting on the side of the street selling jewellery at all hours. No idea how they make money as I rarely ever saw any of them sell a thing. More of a hedonistic lifestyle choice rather than a monetary one.

Montanita attracts more than it's fair share of characters.

One of them was Gary, a 50 something Aussie with a grey ponytail who had sold his restaurant and wandered about until hitting the Ecuadorian coast, bought himself a bike and hadn't moved much for 3 or 4 months. He was meeting up with his daughter to travel together however that was supposed to be 2 months prior and he really no idea when she'd turn up.

Not that he was losing too much sleep over that. As long as he had a hammock to swing on, a bike to ride on and a beer to get bladdered on he was as happy as larry.

Another character, was a 50 year old American waitress who split her time waiting tables, adding to her tattoo collection, selling her jewellery and being an online journalist.

She writes a weekly column under the name "Local Gypsy" for a site called www.eons.com which is aimed at the 55+ crowd.

Having partied enough, chilled enough, walked along a beach enough it was time to head to our final destination in Ecuador - Guayaquil - a port city and the country's largest city.

It's a newish city, blisteringly hot and not to everyone's taste. Granted it doesn't have any features to instantly attract most tourists. Most tourists only ever see its airport as they change planes on their way to the Galapagos Islands.

However I quite liked it, it has a modern promenade along the bank of its main river ending in Santa Ana Hill - an area renovated from a slum into a tourist destination, and like New Orleans it's got a great cemetery.

If you need more of an incentive to visit Guayaquil then remember it's the the cheapest place to fly into in Ecuador. Sold I thought so.

My other memories of Ecuador were -

(1) Ecuador is the biggest exporter of bananas in the world and apparently there is one man who controls the majority of it. Now he doesn't need to worry where the next dollar is coming from.

(2) While waiting to change planes in Lima I told someone I was from Scotland. So they went through the only things that people seem to know about Scotland i.e. Braveheart, Mel Gibson, William Wallace and did I wear a kilt.

Kinda funny that this seems to be the universal responses to Scotland and slightly surprising to me that there is no mention of whisky or Sean Connery or our other famous export....The Proclaimers... 

Mind you if someone had mentioned Peru to me before I had visited there, all I would think of is llamas, Machu Picchu, those silly flappy hats they wear and that the ba**ards beat us in the 1978 World Cup...not that I am bitter or anything...

(3) In Vilcabamba, the main trekking group is run by the self titled "Gavin the Horseman from NZ". He's been in Ecuador for 35 years and looks like a real cowboy and drinks like a fish. That said he runs a mighty good trek.

(4) In Vilcabamba we had the unfortunate (but weirdly interesting) experience of being in earshot of exactly the kind of person who (unfortunately) gives America a bad name. He was from New York and was such a condescending, obnoxious imbecile.

He was there with his wife - poor lass - and lectured to her all the way through the meal. Coming out with such insightful quotes such as 'there are no good Chinese restaurants anywhere in LA...', and 'Californians don't know how to be patriots...' Oh he was such an eejit!

(5) Looking back on getting lost in the hills of Vilcabamba and thinking that was probably the only time my entire trip I had actually been scared for my own safety.

(6) Ecuadorians didn't decapitate and shrink heads just out of plain badness however in retaliation of an unjust death. When such a death occurs and it's not obvious who the culprit is then the local shaman - witch doctor - decides who the bad person is.

Now they have a really good incentive to think of someone as if they don't the shaman's own head is shrunk...

If I was the shaman and they were coming to do that to me I would be pointing at anyone and going "It was him, it was him"...I like my head where it is, thank you very much.

(7) In Cuenca's Central Bank museum you get to touch and handle real live artefacts. I'd never had the pleasure of doing that before, it always had just been replicas.

(8) The hostel in Cuenca got raided by the police at 2am one night. Or rather everyone thought it was being raided but in reality a couple of policeman and their "companions" came in and demanded a room for a bit of "How's your father?"...

(9) Emily started to show her Indiana roots by visiting a KFC in Cuenca. Nothing special you might think, however that was her FIRST ever KFC...at the grand old age of 41, I mean 31, though she doesn't look a day over 21.

(10) On our trip to Isla de la Plata we were joined by a group of retirees from France, who much to Emily's disgust were not shy on getting in and out of their bikinis to go snorkelling.

I was particularly impressed by the woman with the slogan 'It's better in a bikini' emblazoned across her bum...it's impressiveness nearly made up for my camera dying a final death 2 minutes later...

(11) Loads of places (including Bolivia) are named after a man called Simon Bolivar who in the early 1800s led the uprising against and subsequent independence from the Spanish in what are current day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

(12) Apparently Panama hats didn't originate from Panama...I know it was news to me too. They originally came from Ecuador and were exported to Panama during the construction of the canal - hence the name.

(13) Ecuador is a land of boy racers. There are pimped, souped up cars skreeving around everywhere. They even soup up taxis and we had the pleasure of hurtling along in one from Cuenca's bus station.

(14) One of the guys working in the Cuenca hostel was from California and he'd taken a rather unconventional means of getting to Ecuador. He'd driven his motorbike all the way from Cali...and didn't think it would make it back.

(15) Isla de la Plata in English means Silver Island and is named so because the pirate...Sir Francis Drake was meant to have buried a treasure trove of silver on the island.

(16) Meeting a guy from the Yukon (now that's what I call wilderness) who had an even wackier travel route round South America than I did. He started off in Peru then flew south to Argentina then back to Peru and south into Bolivia, then north back into Peru and onto Ecuador from where he had to head south again to Argentina.

He wasn't overly pleased with his mate who had done him a 'favour' by booking his flights...

(17) Not meeting one of the great character of Montanita. Apparently he's an eccentric Ecuadorian man who dresses like an English lord and speaks very posh. Should have been easy enough to spot.

(18) Meeting in Puerto Lopez then again in Montanita a good English lad called Simon who'd got to South America in an interesting way. He'd spent 16 days on a cargo boat going from England across to Panama, down its canal and finally docking in Ecuador.

Once in a lifetime experience but not a cheap one as it cost something like 2,000 GBP one way. I am amazed the crew weren't willing to give him a huge discount as they aren't allowed to drink unless they have paying travellers on board, and we all know how sailors like to drink...

If that wasn't a big enough experience for him, he got another one night when he got woken up at 3am by some odd noises on the street outside. Some locals had tied a pig to a post and were butchering it!

(19) Peering out a bus window and realising why we'd stopped. Someone had roasted a whole pig and selling slices of it at the side of the road.

(20) In Ecuador you can distinctly feel more of a Western influence than in Bolivia or Peru. However it is still an Andean country so you see women (and young girls) from time to time dressed in traditional Andean clothing. It's equally as colourful as in Peru and Bolivia, however they wear different hats.

So Vicky would have been disappointed by the lack of bowler hats. The Ecuadorian women more favour a hat which seems to be heavily influenced by Robin Hood...

(21) Feeling then seeing the surfboard I had just fallen off whizzing straight over my head as it got propelled by a big wave I hadn't noticed.

(22) Learning a new handshake from the surfer dudes of Montanita. I'll treat you to it the next time I see you.

(23) Being sad that Guayaquil was the end of the road for my 7 week adventure with Emily :(

However we had so many good times that I couldn't be sad for long :)
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Sammy Chen on

I love Ecuador so much and thinking to travel here within this week. Thanks for all the information and pictures. It is so beautiful and amazing. Awesome!!


Andy Anderson on

I love Ecuador so much. Happy to know more about it.


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