Category Archives: Ecuador

Up in a Cloud of Ash!

We didn’t get to see all of Ecuador, but we are really happy with what we did get to see.  We traveled straight down the center of the small country, right along the beautiful Andes, and the farther South we went, the better the views became.

After having so much fun in Banos, we wanted to have a short stay in Riobamba because it is a good place to gain access to the famous train ride, Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose).  We had received three invites to stay with people in Riobamba through the Couchsurfing website, which was nice because we got to take our pick.  We chose to stay with Robert because he sounded super interesting and had many good recommendations from other “couchsurfers”.

Bella Vista – Beautiful View of Tungurahua volcano

When we arrived it turned out we had a room and big bed to ourselves.  Robert invited us to whip up some lunch with whatever food he had laying around as he told us about his interesting life.  He is Belgian but grew up in Batswana, Africa.  He then lived in Spain for several years before he ended up in Ecuador.  After a late lunch we headed toward the town center.  Robert teaches English to adults at a university and had an evening class, and Bryan and I needed to get to the train station to purchase our Devil’s Nose tickets.  We happened to run into a friend of Robert’s along the way, Javier, and with him was another tourist, Devon.  We split off to check out the town with Javier and Devon and shared our stories.  It turns out Javier is from Ecuador but he has lived in New Jersey since he was young and he just moved back to open a restaurant.  Devon is a forest firefighter in Canada and is spending the next four or five months bicycling through South America (GO DEVON).  We watched a small parade in the town center and discovered some snacks that tasted like the cinnamon & brown sugar pop tarts.  Javier invited us to his restaurant, LuLu’s, where he treated us to some drinks and a very delicious meal of steak, salad, and rice.  It is a beautiful restaurant and some of the best food we had in all of Ecuador.  It was also really nice to be among other English speakers after struggling with Spanish most of the time.

Enjoying LuLu’s with New Friends

Riobamba’s Saturday markets are supposed to be pretty good, so we spent the day with Robert exploring the markets, new foods, and learning history and facts about the town and surrounding volcanos.  Robert has done a lot of research on the area and we learned so much through him.  It was also nice to rely on his Spanish skills to ask questions when we saw something new to us at the markets.  We ate a lot that day! We started by introducing him to the pop tart-tasting rolls, and then tried a sandwich filled with a pickled fruit, followed by some bread dipped in unprocessed cane sugar syrup, a big lunch of meats and potatoes, and several fruits.  Robert even bought a big guanamana fruit so we could try the juice.  That was extra special because he spent at least an hour separating out the seeds before he could blend it.

One of the many Saturday markets in Riobamba

After we hit every single market in town (there were a lot), Robert was bringing us to a high point where we could have a view of all the surrounding mountains and volcanos.  Just as we were walking in that direction we looked up and noticed a big ash cloud building above the Tungurahua volcano.  It was pretty lucky because the volcano hadn’t performed for at least two weeks and it was our first time seeing an eruption!

Tungurahua volcano erupting

We left early the next morning by bus to Aluasi for the Devil’s Nose train ride.  The town happened to be hosting a race event when we arrived and it was full of the four-foot-tall locals dressed in their traditional attire.  The train route is recognized as an engineering feat for the difficulty and the switchbacks.  The mountain got the name because many people died while building the railroad, but it is known by locals as Condor Mountain because, prior to the railroad, it was a popular nesting spot for the birds.  The river near the mountain is interesting because it naturally flows yellow with sulfur.  The route used to connect towns but currently it is just open as an amusement ride down and back up.  It was very beautiful and really interesting to see how the switchbacks worked, plus riding in trains is always fun.  All in all, many of our bus rides have had better views, but it was interesting!

Nariz de Diablo train ride

We didn’t find the bus stop to catch the bus to Cuenca, so we waited at a random spot along the highway with another backpacker.  Although this is how the locals catch buses, it made me nervous not knowing if we were in the right place or when the next bus would come.  Sure enough though, in less than 20 minutes the bus came along and we had no problems waiving it down.  The views were fantastic all the way to Cuenca with green valleys, farming plots, and mellow mountains.  We made it to Cuenca around 9p.m. and found the cheapest option to sleep in town: hammocks!  It wouldn’t have been bad if the nights there weren’t so cold, but even being wrapped like mummies in wool blankets with multiple layers of clothes wasn’t quite enough.  We toughed it out for three nights though, which must have been too long because I woke up with a strained muscle in my shoulder the third morning!

Cuenca was enjoyable, mostly for the architecture and not so much for the food.  It seemed there was a historic church on every other block, and the town square hosted two cathedrals, the “old” built in the 1500s, and the “new” built in the 1800s.  We spent one day going to Ingapirca, the most important Incan ruins, originally built by the Canari people and then taken over by the Incas.  Only bases of walls remained of everything except the Sun Temple, which stood partially intact.  A short walk from the temple is the Inca Face, a rock cliff that looks like the profile of a face from the viewpoint of the trail.

Ingapirca Ruins (Sun Temple in back)

We spent a couple days in Loja before crossing the border to Peru.  The route from Cuenca to Loja had breathtaking views as the road traveled high and we could see down into valleys and small farm plots.  Loja seemed quite similar to little Otavalo in Northern Ecuador, except that instead of being dominated by natives in traditional dress, it was dominated by affluent people in business suits.  It is the home of a popular law university.  When entering the city center, we crossed under an ornate castle entrance.  It didn’t appear to be historical, so it was just kind of entertaining.  We tried out a small restaurant for dinner that obviously did not receive a lot of tourists, and oh, it was a struggle to communicate!  We took a long time reading over the menu trying to decipher the meanings as the owner tried to explain things to us and then gave up.  When we got the two dishes that we had finally settled on, they were amusingly nothing like what we thought the descriptions meant.  Apparently “tortilla” with chicken in this sense was nothing like what we know as a tortilla, not even close!  It was fried plantain slices with chicken on top.  Very tasty, but confusing!

Originally our plans for Northern Peru included a visit to Kuelap, Incan ruins that are said to rival Machu Picchu’s.  They are set in the Northern Sierras not far from Ecuador, where few tourists venture and the cost is only a fraction of Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately, the more we began to plan the route, the more difficult it seemed.  We eventually found a couple blogs explaining exactly how to get there, and from Loja it would have taken two days and seven modes of transportation!  It would then take the same amount of time to get from there to Lima, the capital of Peru.  Being limited on time, we had to choose the easier route and sadly skip Kuelap.

The easiest way to cross into Peru was via a night bus from Loja to Piura, Peru.  I was a little concerned about crossing the border at 2 a.m. but it actually turned out to be really nice. (I imagine that’s always the case, until it’s not!)  It was just the border officials and our bus of people, so we didn’t have to wait in line and the border officials were friendly and made it very smooth.  Yet again, entering a South American country was easier than we were made to expect!

Una Más Colada Morada, Por Favor!

Other tourists in Ecuador keep telling us they are running into other Coloradans.  We have only met one so far, but there must be something special about this country if so many Coloradans are visiting.

Ecuador can really be divided into three parts: the coastline with beaches and warm weather, the central highlands in which the Andes mountains dominate, and the east which consists of the Orient and a small part of the Amazon.  Of course there is also the Galapagos Islands, but we sadly couldn’t accommodate them on this trip.

We made it across the Colombian/Ecuador border without a hitch.  Most interestingly we were never searched or even lightly checked by a single security guard as we expected we would be.  After quickly crossing and spilling hot coffee all over myself, we caught a bus for Otavalo for just a few dollars.  That was a nice change from Colombia where the buses are a bit expensive.

Otavalo is really known for one thing and that is its large (muy grande) Saturday market.  Most of the town is turned into a tent city of vendors and the majority of the population are of the native peoples, dressed in very traditional clothing and not very tall at all.  You have different wares that range from home goods and typical raw foods, to cultural clothing and pre-made local delicacies.  Megan and I spent a good portion of the day touring all around the market, where we both purchased ponchos.  I definitely look like an idiot gringo with mine on, but it is most comfortable and worth it.  Also, I am pretty sure this is where snuggies drew their inspiration from.  To change up the day a bit Megan and I took a nice walk the Peguche Waterfall that was just outside of town and seemed to be a place that is enjoyed by the locals.  Walking to the waterfall was a big change from being in Colombia, where exploring some areas are off limits to tourists or strongly discouraged for security reasons.  Here we had so much more freedom to roam around and explore. The waterfall was actually quite large and to our surprise there was even a campground associated with it.  If only we had a tent.

(Family walking through market with the old lady carrying some chickens)

(Peguche Waterfall)

That evening we had an interesting time hanging out with some fellow backpackers.  Enjoying a fire, we were sharing stories of our travels.  One of the backpackers, Geoff Christopher, decided to open up a bit and tell us an almost unbelievable story: In 2009 he was the runner up in the Monopoly World Championship.  Who knew there was such a thing? We were all laughing so hard, at both the idea of it and that we were sitting next to the second highest ranked Monopoly player in the world!  He’s even in a documentary.  The competition is not held again until next year, so he still holds this title.  Probably one of the best parts was that they held that championship in Vegas, and the winner was only 19, so there wasn’t much partying for him.

Outside of town there are quite a few different destinations to hit such as waterfalls and volcanoes.  We chose to see a volcano crater lake, much like Crater Lake in Oregon.  Starting off we had a brief, one-hour detour as we took the wrong bus, but ended up getting to enjoy some nice scenery with a good view of Otavalo.  We hopped on the correct bus and made our way to the Cuicocha Lake.  The area is super nice and we had an amazing view of the surrounding towns, but unfortunately we had some dark clouds, hiding the deep turquoise color that the lake is known for.  Still, it was an amazing place and there was a bit of wild flora that caught or attention more than anything.

(Overlooking Cuicocha Lake)

(Looking down on Otavalo)

After really enjoying Otavolo we made our way to Quito to spend a week taking Spanish lessons and staying with our first Couchsurfing host.  Quito is a large metropolitan area spread throughout a valley with buildings sweeping over it all.  Quite a thing to see.  Santiago, our Couchsurfing host, picked us up when our bus arrived.  I guess if we had any concerns, Santiago’s apartment was literally across the street from the U.S. Embassy.  Our first evening was great as Santiago was most generous to us by giving us a bit of a tour and cooking dinner.  He drove us into the city center to show us where our school was and even helped us find which bus to take.  One late night out he showed us around the Basilica, Presidential Palace, and other great landmarks.  This was a huge benefit because there were no crowds and we were much safer with a local.  There are so many churches and plazas that it is almost dizzying.  Santiago introduced us to Colada Morados, which are a classic drink during the upcoming holiday Dia de Muertos, aka All Souls Day or Day of the Dead.  Every evening we ended up having Colada Morados because they are so yummy.  Colada Morados are drinks made of black raspberries, blueberries, dark maize flour, pineapple and range of different herbs and spices, then served hot.  Along with the drink you usually have a piece of bread called Guaguas de Pan, which is made to look like a child and is filled with some fruit filling.  Megan was in heaven with all the baked goods we were consuming.

(Colada Morados and Guaguas de Pan)

(The Basilica)

(Santiago, Bryan, and Megan)

Halfway through our stay Santiago was leaving town for some festivities and took us out to his parents house for lunch and to see some of the surrounding area.  First off, his parents made an amazing lunch of avocado soup, fried fish, rice, fries, salad, and fresh juice.  They live along a canyon with a nice river running through it, with the mountains running along the background on the other side.  Absolutely amazing views!

(Looking across the canyon by Santiago’s families house)

The last day of Spanish class was on Dia de Muertos so we took a field trip to a cemetery to observe the local traditions.  This was super interesting as families showed up to clean grave sites, tell stories of their loved ones, and eat lunch on the graves.  It was amazing to see entire families gathered around grandparents telling stories while young kids watched and listened most intently.  Every once in a while there would be musicians playing over a grave.  This was a great experience and put so much more meaning behind the holiday.

(A couple of men playing music)

Our next stop was Latitude 0 Longitude 0, Mitad del Mundo, or the “Middle of the World”.  This was awesome, being able to straddle the equator.  We didn’t go to the more popular historic marker as it isn’t exactly on the equator, but instead we went to a little museum nearby that hosts a small marker denoting the actual point.  We were given a small tour where we got to conduct different experiments demonstrating effects of the equator (Megan was deemed Egg Master for making an egg balance on a nail head), and also we learned about the local indigenous tribes of the area.  Interesting mix….

(Megan at the “Middle of the World” with her Egg Master cert)

We headed to Banos, the adventure capital in Ecuador.  We were very excited when we were leaving Quito because for the first time it was finally clear enough to see Cotopaxi, a massive volcano mountain.  About 30 minutes before arriving in Banos we hit a bit of a rough time as Megan noticed her bag had been awkwardly pulled under her seat and our DSLR camera and some cash was stolen. Not good!  Megan probably traumatized a small boy sitting behind her when she asked to see the contents of his bag.  Because we stopped so often people changed frequently and whom ever stole our gear probably got off way before we ever noticed.  Guess it’s time for camera shopping again.  When we arrived in Banos I immediately hunted down a police office to explain what happened, and he gave me a look like “here we go again” and told me to go to the police station tomorrow morning to file an official report. Bad day…

After shrugging off a bad day our next day started off with a scrumptious pancake and what ended up being a painless and fast trip to the police station.  Throughout the day Megan feasted on more baked goods, as it almost felt like we were in Europe or something, and we scheduled a white water rafting trip.  Woot!  White water rafting was a blast.  The rapids were only class 3-4, but the guide was great as we would find a good rapid and paddle back up into it and enjoy getting stuck behind it for a bit.  After getting sore muscles from rafting we decided the next day to cycle about 20km while exploring the waterfalls and beauty outside of town.  Against my best judgement, Megan and I even took a cable ride across part of the valley to see one of the waterfalls up close.  Not a great idea for someone afraid of heights, but better than zip lining over there instead.  I know most others might disagree with me on that.  Most, if not all, of the waterfalls were greater than 100m in height.  For about every waterfall we saw there were countless more we missed.  It is intense how many waterfalls flow into the valleys near Banos.  We spent the last day touring the city again, but this time taking some trails on the edge of town and trying to see the active volcano nearby.  It was always covered in clouds.  Instead, we were entertained by some people jumping off a bridge, and we finally tried out the Melcocha (sugar cane taffy) which is made all over Banos. Yum!

(Our raft nearly swallowed up by a rapid)

(Really tall waterfall)

(River next to Banos and the bridge people jump/swing off)

I was able to get a handful of videos uploaded this past week.  Some of them are from Southeast Asia and the rest are South America.  If I get good internet again I will hopefully get some more up.