Ecuador - My Highlights

Trip Start Nov 24, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Monday, February 4, 2008

After more than two months of living and traveling Maya and I have had seen and done many different things across the country. While we obviously didn´t get the chance to see everything that we wanted because of time constraints, from what we did see, heard great things about but didn´t have time to go or went to and felt like it was over-hyped, here is a list of my personal favorite places to see and things to do in hopes of steering other fellow travelers to some of the fantastic sights of Ecuador and steer clear of other.

1. Quilotoa Circuit - A must do. Too many travelers head this way only to see the crater lake for one day before continuing on their travels. It is obligatory to continue on through Chugchilán, Sigchos and Isinliví. The scenery is breathtaking, hikes are plentiful, costs are low and it is a great way to escape the cities and experience the more indigenous feel of the mountains. All pending the weather. I recommend Casa Mama Hilda´s as an excellent place to stay along the way in Chugchilán. The family who runs it were the most colorful, happy and warm folks we met during trip and we met many. Transportation problems definitely may seem daunting but if you have a little time, patience and enjoy riding on the tops of Ecuadorean buses, it is highly, highly rewarding.

2. El Oriente - Amazon - Unless you have already done trips to the jungle in Peru, Brazil, Colombia or Bolivia, the Ecuadorean rain forest is definitely a highlight. Not only is the flora and fauna of the region extremely diverse and the views and feel in your dugout canoe is absolutely insane at times, the price to go to the jungle is quite affordable at about $200 dollars for 5 days - 4 nights everything included. When you sit down and figure in the costs of transportation, excellent food, guides (plural) plus knowledge and the actual experience of being and knowing the area (priceless), it really is not expensive at all. I would recommend 5-4 days instead of 4-3 days and search for a place to stay without electricity (more animals). Waking up to howler monkeys, finding frogs hanging out in your toilet, eating delicious Piranha meat and being watched over by gigantic spiders while you sleep at night makes no electricity, no problem if that is something that matters. It is also good to know that while you may be touring into a pristine, secluded rain forest, the fact that your money paid to the park is going to directly to the protection for the area and all that lives there from beoming the next oil drilling site. Our experience was great. We wen to the the Reserva Faunistica Cuyabeno in the NE. Booked it with Dracaena in Quito. Best to do it in the city. We also heard good things from travelers who went to the Napo region (near Coca). Before you go however, make sure your group is small. No more than 8-10 peeps.

*other highlights if heading to Cuyabeno - If you have the time or don't have the money to pay for the flight get a bus during the day b/c the ride to Lago Agrio (Nueva Loja) is amazing. Along the way jump off the bus for a few hours to split up the ride and see the San Rafael waterfall or stay the night nearby. Both are good options.

3. Hiking to El Altar - While one can always book a tour to climb Cotopaxi, Chimborazo or any of the other highlight tourist mountains, a great way to experience the central highlands of Ecuador is to go on your own trip to El Altar arguably (when visible) one of Ecuador's most beautiful mountains. Jumping off point is in Riobamaba which most people flock to for a ride by train to the Nariz del Diablo. Why not stretch the legs a little bit and do some hiking? Best time to go Dec - Feb but doable anytime really if you don´t mind mud. Bring rubber boots (you can buy or rent for cheap) as well as any other camping equipment. Additionally there is a refuge near the end of the hike where you can, well, take refuge if need be. Plenty of available water along the way. Gets cold at night. Can rent equipment in Riobamba.

4. Coast - Our journey brought us through Canoa, Bahia de Caraquez, Puerto Lopez and Montanita. Canoa is a mini Montanita while Puerto Lopez is a authentic little fishing port and the jumping off point to Isla de la Plata. Both Canoa and Montanita have great beaches and nice waves but we found Puerto Lopez to be far less crowded and had better beaches nearby. I highly recommend checking out Los Frailes, 8km to the north of P.Lopez by local bus (drops you off on the side of the road where you walk in). Any bus driver will know. The secluded beaches to the just to the north of Los Frailes which you can walk to from the beach make up Parque Nacional Machalilla. They are great places to walk, relax and spend a day soaking up the sun. Large enough to be on your total lonesome as well and inside a national park so you won't have to worry about getting mugged or having your things stolen which I have heard about happening at other locations. Montanita would be the place to hang out, party and people-watch. Canoa the place for relaxation although if I did it again I would go further north and explore a lesser known town. Great seafood anywhere along the coast. Wonderful fruit. Lots of places to stay. Cheap. Laid Back.
*Isla de La Plata trip was fun but not quite worth the money unless the frigates are in mating season or the whales are about (+-30 dollars).

5. Cuenca - Can´t say enough about the city. Excellent colonial buildings (best in Ecuador), safe, clean, tranquil, not as 'expensive' as books or people make it out to be. There are lots of things see, it has good food and overall it is a nice place to relax for a few days before or after Parque Nacional Las Cajas. Check out the cultural events happening in the city, drink some tasty morocho and buy some crafts/gifts if you want because it is a good place to do it.
* If already traveled or planning on going to Peru, save your time and skip Ingapirca.
* Banco Central Museum is worth it.
* A Lower quality Panama hat will cost you $12 but in the end its a steal.
* Language schools are expensive but if you are in search, try Amauta or Simon Bolivar
  -or better yet, head to the university and put up a flier for a language partner (free). 

6. Casa de Guayasamin (Quito) - Excellent showcase of his work. Beautiful house. Well worth going to even if it is an out of the way location. My highlight of Quito. (We did not do tram, cloudy each time we were there)

7. Mindo - Rocking little town. Beautiful cloud forest. Cheap places to stay. Awesome waterfalls. Safe. Great two day trip from Quito. If you sit outside during the evening and see a local kid cruise main street 15 times in his SUV, laugh - it´s the good ol small town feel. He was doing the same thing when were there!

Other thoughts on different things and places in Ecuador.

- Menu del Dia (Almuerzos and Meriendas) is where it´s at. $1-2 for a nice meal.
- If you are in Cuenca and pass by a restaurant called 'El Arrozal,' go there! The old lady who runs is is about as good-hearted and hard working as they come. A hole in the wall that will never make a guide book but I frequented often.
- Overdose on fruit - try some that you´ve never seen before, it´ll be worth it. Tomate de Arbol juice is excellent.
- Otovalo is overpriced as far as crafts/gifts go. Only purchase weavings or go to experience animal market etc...
- Sending home gifts will cost you but it is safe via Correo del Ecuador. Costs: 60 dollars for 6-7 kgs. We had a rather crazy experience in which we went out and met these two guys who were a little on the nutty side. One of them a little more than the other. We left in an awkward way. The next day, taking a package to the post office to be mailed, the more wacko one happened to be the guy taking packages. It was an awkward situation and I'm not sure if it was a blessing in disguise or not but our package arrived safely to the United States with all content.
- Vilcabamba is a nice place to stop if you are heading south but if you are not and stapped for time, you may want to choose to do something different. I enjoyed it a lot though.
- Would have loved to have gone to the SE and visited Zamora and the cloud forests of P.N. Podocarpus but didn´t get the chance. If you have the time (I did the research but didn´t make it) from Zamora head north to see the Rio Yantzaza trapped in high canyon walls in shuar territory. Place to read about: Las Orquidias. It sounds like an incredible place but I have had trouble finding much information about it. Good Luck.
- Bus assistants are trustworthy - your baggage won´t mysteriously disappear as I don't think they want to risk losing their jobs. But it is worth keeping an eye out for the suspicious customer eyeing your baggage. Keep a weary eye on being charged more. Ask the local sitting next to you before paying. Honesty is the key. Don´t know where it gets lost sometimes in a country so 'in touch' with god. I probably wouldn't think twice about taking an extra buck from someone who looked like a gringo traveler if I were in that position either I guess...
- People are generally friendly and very willing to help you out although every country has its lame duck.
- Machismo exists
- Sexism exists
- If you are from the US and strike up a conversation with a local, if it is a guy, at some point in the conversation you can count on him telling you all about the problems that exist in your own country. They definitely know best and they definitely know the truth...according to them.
- Take some time to talk with old men and women, they are jolly ol´folk and not the least bit jaded.
- When Ecuadorians have a reason to drink, they drink. If I were a girl, I'd keep a watchful I if alone.

(Note: We didn´t plan a Galapagos trip b/c the costs were over our budget) If you do decide to go, book in Quito, call if you are outside the country or wait until you are in. Trips will run anywhere from $900 for 5-4, $1200 for 8-7 and on up to $4,000 plus depending on luxury wants. 8 days is worth your money in my opinion if you plan on going.

Until another time....hope the advice helps.
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