Where: 2 nights in Quito, 3 in Banos, 3 back in Quito
When: The last week of May
How: American Airlines from JFK-MIA-UIO. Tickets were consistently in the $800 range and then suddenly and briefly dropped to $450. On the return they needed to unload 13 people due to weight limits taking off at high altitude, so I took an offer to stay an extra day with an $800 flight coupon.
Quito - Hostel de Los Alpes - Around $60 after a 10% discount for paying cash. It is blissfully quiet and run by a very nice family, but it has seen better days and not worth the price.
Banos - Posada del Arte - An excellent option for $32, mostly clean, an excellent restaurant, good hot water and a perfect location with a balcony directly across from the waterfall.
Back in Quito - Hotel Sebastian - More than I wanted to pay at $86, but a huge corner room with great views and a great location in the Mariscal and very friendly.
Also in Quito - One night in the Hilton Colon paid for by American Airlines. Nice view of El Ejido Park, though too noisy to keep the window open. Nice pool and excellent dinner buffet.
In Quito it was absolutely perfect, clear blue skies, no rain and right around 70 degrees. In Banos, I had two afternoons with torrential downpours and then one perfect day. Though its 3000 feet lower than Quito, temperatures were about the same.
I had no trouble walking around, climbing and hiking. The first two nights, I had trouble sleeping and a decreased appetite, which I attributed to the height, but that persisted even in Banos and even after several days.
Once again, the safety issue is greatly exaggerated. I was always looking over my shoulder and it is unfortunate that there are not too many places where you can wander around at night, but overall Quito is one of the more relaxed Latin cities I've been in. On my first night, I asked the hotel about going to the old city and they warned me not to. So I went anyway, and I'm still here. The Plaza Foch area is heavily policed so pretty safe. One night, the hotel told me Itchimbia Park is safe at night with lots of security, but aside from one security guard and me there was no one else around, so I wouldn't recommend going up there at night. I hailed plenty of cabs on the street, as everyone does, with no problem. And I held my bags tightly on the buses and I still have them.
English was spoken at all the hotels. Outside of that, it's hard to tell since I mostly stuck to Spanish. Non-Spanish speakers would speak in English and usually be answered in Spanish, but everyone got by.
The views in Quito - From the Panecillo on a beautiful clear morning when you can see all the volcanoes and the snowcapped Cotopaxi, from the top of the basilica, from Itchimbia at night, and even from high floors of hotels.
The churches - particularly the basilica, Iglesia Santo Domingo and especially the Compania de Jesus.
Banos - It really is one of those places where you'll end up staying longer than planned. There is so much to see, the mountains, the rivers, the waterfalls, the hiking. Try the Magic Hands Spa, after which you can cross the street to the Swiss Bistro for the best dessert in Ecuador. And perfectly safe day or night.
The Waterfall Route - I opted to skip the bicycle option and go by bus. There were buses passing every few minutes and it was usually just 25 cents from one village to the next, but you must pay close attention and tell them exactly when you want to get off. I took the tarabita to Manta de la Novia and then a very muddy hike down to the waterfall and then back across the river. And Paillon del Diablo is one of the most dramatic waterfalls I've ever seen. I walked around Rio Negro for a bit in the pouring rain and then went all the way to Puyo. The orchid garden was ok, also in the pouring rain, and the monkey refuge inundated with mud. If I had to do it again, I'd skip Puyo. Did the route again the next day in sunshine and hiked to the Machay waterfall and then wandered a bit through some of the villages.
Cotopaxi - I got a very good driver and I'll give him a plug here - Israel Diaz from Mindo Travel, 095-431-469, and he arranged a guide to meet us there. Drove up to the little museum and then to the parking lot at 4500 meters. The walk up to the refugio at 4800 meters was one of the most grueling things I've ever done. Combine the altitude with the brutal winds, the fog and the dust blowing relentlessly right in our faces and it's not exactly fun, but at least I can say I got to see snow in Ecuador. Afterwards, we drove down to the lagoon and the sun came out and the views of the peak were awesome.
The ease of travel - There were relatively few tourists, and it is a very easy place to travel. No hassles, no one trying to sell you anything and with the exception of one cab driver from the airport who overcharged me by a few dollars, everyone is honest.
Not so great:
The food - Aside from the Posada del Arte restaurant, the Swiss Bistro and the Hilton dinner buffet, I didn't eat well. Except for a couple of empanadas that were heated in a microwave, I didn't have any good Ecuadorian food. Went to a coffee and chocolate place in Banos which presumably would have good cakes, but it was pretty bad.
The bus ride from Banos to Quito - took four hours with endless circling around Ambato and Latacunga looking for more passengers and too much urban sprawl. If possible, get a direct Banos to Quito bus that does not circle the cities in between.
People peeing in the streets - Not homeless people, but pedestrians who just seemed to feel the urge. Is it really necessary to pee on a tree when there is a mall full of bathrooms right across the street?
What I missed:
I could have used an extra day in Quito. Never made it to the Capilla del Hombre or Museo de la Ciudad and never got to walk around the new town on a weekday. And I got only a brief walk through La Ronda, which I only found out about late on my last night, and where I might well have found a good Ecuadorian meal.
When it rains it really pours, and when it pours, all turns to mud. Bring a poncho and hiking boots. I wish I had.
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Where: 2 nights in Quito, 3 in Banos, 3 back in Quito