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Trip Report Ecuador Mainland

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This trip report covers Otavalo, Cotopaxi, and Quito, visited in late April/early May 2009. I also wrote a report on our Galapagos and Guayaquil experiences, posted separately.

Day 1: The flight on Aerogal from Baltra to Quito arrived on time, and the driver from Hacienda Cusin drove us there in about 1 1/2hrs. The scenery was beautiful in this North Sierra region of the Andes, and my husband had fun watching his GPS zero out as we crossed the equator...several times, due to the twisting mountain roads. Approaching the Hacienda, I was a bit underwhelmed at the scruffy, littered, crumbling nature of the surrounding towns, but looking up at the ring of volcanoes brought the beauty home. Cusin iies in the shadow of the Imbaburra volcano, which was frequently obscured by clouds, and is the oldest hacienda in Ecuador.

Our room, Sierra 19, was in an original section of the estate and very atmospheric. High crown-molding ceilings, gold plastered walls, and handsome wooden carved king bed covered with a gorgeous woven bedspread, and a wood-burning fireplace, which was much appreciated at night. Two hot water bottles were put under the sheets each night when they lit the fire, and helped keep us toasty. The bathroom was functional but not attractive, with fluorescent lighting.

The grounds of the hacienda were very attractive, with many luxuriant gardens, courtyards and huge trees. Antiques, artwork, flowers and fireplaces fill the public areas, and the dining room was small but charming. We ate every dinner there for the convenience of not having to drive far at night and the prices were reasonable. The first night, had an excellent pumpkin soup, the shrimp in garlic sauce with potatoes & vegetables, and my husband had a steak. The desserts weren't that great...a chocolate & white pie that used too much gelatin, and my husband had guanabana ice cream, which wasn't very good. In fact, I didn't like most of desserts we had in Ecuador, and I'm a sweets fanatic. The ice cream always tasted too icy.

The breakfasts, which were included, were pretty good, but you were supposed to choose just one item....either scrambled eggs, or pancakes, or yogurt with fruit & muesli. The cafe con leche was delicious.

Day 2: The first morning, we called a local taxi to drive us to Otavalo market, about 15 min away and $5. It was a Tuesday so it wasn't the huge weekend market...but covered about one square block, which was still big enough. I enjoyed watching the Otavalan women with their small children manning their booths. So much of the merchandise looked the same and it was a bit overwhelming. I wasn't interested in buying much since this was still the early part of our trip (we went on to Peru for two more weeks) and I didn't want to lug a lot around. We walked about 6 blocks to have a good lunch at Ali Shungu, only people there.

At 1pm, I had arranged for our driver/guide, Hans Moser, to pick us up at the restaurant. I had found out about him from reading other Fodor forum posts. He spoke excellent English, had a good car, and drove well. That afternoon, he drove us to several of the craft villages. First Peguche, where we went into the workshop/showroom of Jose Cotacatchi. I looked all around, but the piece I liked best was the one he was working on...a .pretty turquoise and blue wall hanging. He said he could have it ready by the next day, so we arranged to come back.
Then, we went to a musician's house, who has played around the world, and he demonstrated several instruments and made a pan-pipe.
From there, we went to Ibarra, the wood carving town, which was too far away and I didn't like the products. Should have skipped that.
And, we finished up in Agato to see the master backstrap weaver, Miguel Andrango. It was strange walking into his modest little home (he and his wife were sitting on the floor drying corn), but they got up and demonstrated their craft for us. They are both very old...look to be about 85 or 90. He carded wool....she took it and shuffled over to a spinning wheel, where she slowly walked back and forth spinning it into a very long,fine thread. Then, he sat down at his loom and proceeded to weave. He has been to the US and is actually in the Smithsonian. Most of his work is very intricate, but not my style with the dark colors. I did buy a beautiful turqouise-striped baby alpaca shawl.

This experience lasted a little too long. By now, we were tired, and unfortunately, my husband started to come down with tourista (he blamed it on the one shrimp he ate last night, but I was fine). We weren't sure if it was from bad food, or from the high altitude, which he also suffers from, and we were at about 9000 ft. So, he started taking Diamox, which didn't help, and after a couple of days of suffering, he started taking Xifaxin, a new antibiotic for TD.

Day 3: Hans picked us up at 9am...a beautiful sunny morning in the low 60's. Took a pretty drive out to Lake Cuicocha...named for the guinea pig shaped island in the center of the crater lake. First, he drove us up to the caldera rim and it was a lovely 5 min. walk up to the viewpoint, but you can really feel the altitude here at 10.000.' The clouds were rolling in now and we couldn't see the five or so volcanoes that ring this area. Then, we descended to the lake and took a small boat ride around.

On the way to lunch, we stopped at Cotacatchi, famous for it's leather. This was the prettiest, cleanest town we saw and it was filled with great bargains on leather goods. We stopped for an excellent lunch at Hacienda Pinsaqui, which featured a local musical group playing during lunch. The grounds were also beautiful, but the atmosphere felt a little more formal or stuffy than Cusin. And, when a large bus group arrived mid-way during lunch...there went the delightful atmosphere.

We got back to Cusin about 2:30pm, and my husband went to bed to sleep (still not feeling well) and I wandered the beautiful grounds.

Dinner here has been hit or miss, but overall fine. Ecuador has a variety of fruits and juices that we don't get here in the States. I especially liked the green naranajillo juice but didn't care for tree tomato.

Day 4: Left in a pouring rain about 9:15a to drive to our next destination: Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, near the Cotopaxi Volcano National Park. Had the same driver that picked us up at the airport, Elo, who doesn't speak English. Arrived about noon and despite it's high rates and luxury status, it looks rather unassuming when you pull up, especially when it's raining.

We were met by Lisa, the young manager from Switzerland, who showed us to the fire-lit lounge and gave us a typical warm Ecuadorian welcome drink. While we waited to be called to the dining room for lunch, we talked to the other couple there....a travel writer from Conde Nast Traveler, UK. and her guide. The four of us were the only lunch guests in the dining room, which is ringed by black Inca stone walls...they had cut a window into one wall, but it was still dark as a cave. The lunch was excellent, and we consistently had the best food in Ecuador here. They disinfect their food, or used filtered water, so we could eat raw vegetables without worry.

We were taken to our room "las Gordas" after lunch, and it was worth the trip to stay there. Painted frescoes on every wall...french door and windows with shutters, a lovely view out to horses and gardens, claw foot tub, 3-sided fireplace to bath area and room...separate room with commode and two sinks...huge arrangement of red roses on window shelf.

Then, we took the included Rose Plantation tour at 2pm. Many guest walk to the plantation, but it was raining so we needed a ride. There seemed to be some confusion about who would take us...finally, a worker took us crammed 3 to the front seat. At the plantation, they hooked us up with another worker from San Agustin and a young girl who worked at the plantation....neither of them could speak English. She seemed embarrassed and not sure of herself, so I think she didn't usually give tours. All she did was walk us around the extensive greenhouses, naming different varieties of roses....38 in all. At one point, the chemical fertilizer or pesticide smell was so strong we had to leave that area. The most interesting part was the packaging area, but we didn't really know what was going on.

The hacienda felt like being in someone's house....overstuffed, upholstered furniture, personal framed photos, unusual artwork, and tons of books. Dinner was excellent: vegetable soup, pork chop in mushroom sauce, broccoli, and roesti potatoes, followed by the best chocolate mousse I've had.

Several large dogs are on the premises, and one banged on our door at 12:30am trying to get in from the rain.

Day 5: No one told us that breakfast was served in a different room, so took awhile to find it. Best yet....cereals, cheeses, and fresh fruit, then toast and the best blackberry jam...followed by your choice of an egg dish...Eggs benedict, omelets, fancy scrambled eggs. And, their coffee was very strange, but delicious. Somehow, they use a french press to distill a very concentrated, thick syrup, which is at room temperature, and then they pour a small bit in your cup followed by hot, steaming milk. The only complaint I had was that it wasn't quite hot enough.

At 9:30am, our optional half day tour to Cotopaxi Natl Park began. This time, we asked to make sure we'd have an English speaking guide, so Luis, the 80 yr old driver, brought along Daisy, a woman who taught high school English as an interpreter. Her English was fair, but she said we were the first foreigners she's spoken to. When we got to the entrance control station, all of a sudden Luis is talking to two young women who are standing around, and he says something to Daisy and she asks if we'd mind if they rode with us. Well, we did mind, but felt like we were put on the spot. I assumed they just wanted a ride up to top....about an hour without stopping, but no, they were to be with us for the whole tour. Which meant they had to climb over us everytime we stopped to get in the back. They were very nice girls from Germany, but we were annoyed because this wasn't the trip we signed up for. And, we knew we just wanted to go to the top parking area, not walk up to the Refuge, and get back to the Hacienda. Yet, there was no way two young girls aren't going to want to walk up. We had paid $60 for the tour, and apparently, he charged them $10 each.

It was a cold, drizzly, cloudy day...and the scenery was stark and rather ugly. We stopped and took a little hike around a lake area at 11,000', which was very unremarkable. When we finally got up to the parking area, at about 15,000'...the girls set off with Luis and we stayed in the parking lot....but Luis had locked the van and it started to hail...we were freezing. They came back early and we took off. I wouldn't recommend this trip to anyone.

But, we felt much better after our couples massage in our room. Two women came and they were excellent. I didn't know what the massage custom was, regarding undressing, and since this is a conservative, Catholic country, I told my husband we should probably wear our underpants. That was unnecessary. They gave the most comprehensive massage I've ever had...so the underpants were just in the way. Never had a full stomach, chest massage either, but it felt great.

Oh yes, be sure you keep copies of any cancelled checks and proof of deposit. Thanks to this site and Trip Advisor, I heard of several cases of them claiming they didn't receive a deposit. That night, they said that and I was able to show them my cancelled check as proof. The same thing happened at Hacienda Cusin. I don't think they are doing this maliciously....they just are so disorganized. And bring a lot of cash....many places add a big surcharge for credit card purchases.

All in all, I'm not sure that this Hacienda is justified of the high rates they charge. They get a lot of mileage out of the original Inka walls in the dining room and the chapel.

Day 6: The hacienda arranged a driver to take us to Mansion del Angel in Quito, about a 2 hr drive. We were able to get into our room at 11:30am, but I was unhappy with how small it was. I tried to change but couldn't. The place is cute, but the neighborhood, Lal Mariscal, looks pretty seedy. Ate a good lunch a block away at Pizzeria Antare.

My husband is feeling much sicker today, so I left him sleeping while I tried to explore and shop in the neighorhood. Not very inviting. Every shop has bars on the windows and a security guard at the door.
We were supposed to go to a great restaurant for dinner, but cancelled since he's not up to it. Walked back to the same restaurant for dinner, and when we were leaving, the waiter insisted on walking us back to our inn due to the crime.

Day 7: We hired a guide to do a half day tour of Old town. That was a rip off...she spoke good English and was very pleasant, but she had a set agenda and wouldn't take me to places I wanted to go. It would have been perfectly safe to walk around there with it's large police presence. I wish we had stayed down in Old town and gone out on our own. Just saw the outsides of the Cathedrals (it was a Sunday), drove up to Panecilla Hill for the view, and that was about it. At least, I had her drop us off at the Museo Banco de Centro.

That night, we took a taxi to Cafe Mosaico, which was good and has an incredible view of the lit city. Not too impressed with Quito, given the circumstances. Ready to leave tomorrow for Peru.

If you'd like to see my photos, go to http://ecuadormainland.shutterfly.com/

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