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Trip Report Exciting Ecuador - Our December 2012 trip (No Galapagos)

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We had a great trip to Ecuador and since there isn't a whole lot of non-Galapagos info here in the forum, I hope this adds to the collective knowledge. I try to put down the most notable parts of my trips so they are fairly easy to read.

Here was our itinerary (accommodations used in parentheses):
Dec 13: Depart USA
Dec 14 midnight: Arrive Quito; overnight Quito (Posada del Maple)
Dec 15-19 5 day trek/bike then explore surrounding area: Combo hike and bike.
15 - Cotopaxi hike to the refuge and bike down.
(Chuquiragua lodge)
16 - Biking from Chaupi throgout Ilinisas villages- Lasso.
(Quinta Colorada)
17 - Hiking and Binking from Lasso to Quilotoa.
night in Quilotoa (Alpaka Hostel)
18 - Hiking from Quilotoa to Chugchilan
night in Chugchilan (Hostal Mama Hilda)
19 - Biking from Chugchilan to Sigchos- return to Quito.
Dec 20-21 Quito (Las Amazonas Inn)
Dec. 21-24: Napo Wildlife Lodge
Dec 24: Bus to Otavalo (La Posada del Quinde)
Dec 24-27: Otavalo and surrounds
Dec 28: Return to USA

Basic Tips

1. Their currency is the USD--bring lots and lots and lots of ones (they most frequently use Sacajawea) in order to avoid the "who has small change" problem.
2. The equatorial sun is STRONG. We were biking on a cool, cloudy day and I burned the tiny exposed area on my wrist where my shirt sleeve ended and my bike glove began.
3. In Quito our friends who live there pointed out that the safest cabs have numbers on the windshield of the driver's side. There are lots of yellow taxis but these with numbers have some official regulation.
4. Look like a local: Learn the hail-a-taxi-hand-flap--arm straight out, palm down, and hand fluttering up and down. Everyone does this to hail cabs.
5. Have some Spanish at your disposal; even in tourist areas people spoke very little English.

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    Tours/Attractions

    La Plaza Grande, Quito: This was not our favorite activity but it was a relaxing day and easy to walk around to all the attractions. The main things to see are churches and we have seen more than our share of churches so that's not a draw for us.
    We saw the Iglesia de San Fransisco, which was having mass at the time. The whole church was covered in gold leaf and extravagant decorations. We then went to the La Compania de Jesus, another church. The entryway here was carved entirely of cedar with tall and ornate stone columns. The church, like the previous one, was very ornate. We stopped into El Sagrario, where they entryway is crypts. That was what interested us most; one was marked with crossed bones, indicating the person had died from smallpox.

    We walked back toward San Fransiso plaza so we could go to Casa del Alabado museum. We had the place to ourselves and it was really nice. The admission was $4 each. There was a large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. They have all been recovered from tombs and so they were remarkably intact. This was an outstanding museum.

    Cotopaxi Park: This park is, of course, the place to go for a hike up Cotopaxi. The park has a few nice trails but most people come to hike to the refuge or summit. We hiked to the refuge, which was on our second full day in the country. The altitude was killer. You can actually see the refuge from the parking lot and the walk is only 300 M but the altitude is so great, it took us an hour to climb it! We had to stop many times and go very slowly from being winded and tired--and we are fit and healthy 32 y/o's. We reached the refuge, which was a pleasant cabin with snacks and tables. It was about lunch time so we ate soup and drank tea to get warm. The day was clear and sunny but the mountain had cloud cover and was very chilly. Our descent only took 15 minutes!

    We biked on the road down from the refuge out to the entrance of the park which was a fun downhill ride.

    Las Ilanizas: We took a short hike here, not all the way to the refuge. It's a great place for nice views of surrounding volcanoes if there isn't cloud cover. After our hike we biked down through the surrounding villages.

    Quilotoa Crater - The crater is beautiful and the little town in really beefing up its tourist infrastructure. It is still tiny, though--a few shops and hostels and that is all. The crater was beautiful and the hike down was a little difficult because it was so steep and sandy. We went out to a point and took pictures, then dreaded the difficult climb up, 300-400 m gain in altitude. It actually wasn't too bad--it was hard but we made it in about 45 minutes and we had expected it to take much longer.

    Hike Quilotoa to Chuchilan This is a common backpackers' hike and a beautiful one. The walk was supposed to take 5 or 6 hours. We hiked with a local naturalist guide, Bernardo, who would would chat with us a little in Spanish, as he spoke little English. He is a certified naturalist guide so he stopped and showed us various plants that are used locally as medicine. We first walked along the crater rim then turned and went down towards the canyon. The canyon is huge and was created when one of the volcanoes had a huge eruption long, long ago. The canyon goes all the way out to the coast. We walked down it, then up and out to Chugchilan --the whole trek took us about 4.5 hours.

    Mitad del Mundo and Museo Solar Intinan, near Quito: Mitad del Mundo--the site of the equator at 0 0’ 0”. We took a cab there for $20 and then paid our small admission to the site. There is a large monument over the equator and you can take an elevator up it (you buy a separate ticket to do this), which we did. On the stairs down there is an “ethnography museum” that was not terribly great. We took a lot of silly photos and then ate lunch. There were lots of little souvenir places so we shopped a bit.

    The day began clear, warm and sunny and as we were ready to leave the park a huge, cold fog blew in, shrouding the entire area and the monument. From Mitad del Mundo we went to Museo Solar Intinan, which is technically the true 0,0,0 latitude. We were part of a guided tour there. We briefly saw how two of the native groups live; headhunters and people who live naked and use blow guns. Then we went and played a bit on the equator. The guide showed us how water drains on each side and then on the equator-the Coriolis effect. It was amazing that it went straight down on the equator and then moving the sink 5 feet north or south made the way it drained change. There is ongoing debate between us about whether this was a trick since we had read many places that the effect cannot occur on such a small scale--but the demonstration was so convincing. We then tried to balance an egg on a nail, which the guide was able to do but no one could replicate. We tried other things as well like walking on the equator heel-to-toe with our eyes closed, which made us surprisingly wobbly.

    Both of these sites were good touristy fun.

    More to come...

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    Tours/Attractions, Continued

    Napo Wildlife Lodge This is actually both a place to stay and a set of activities. It is an Amazon basin lodge and I cannot rave enough about our experience there. The lodge is comfortable and really excellent. I posted a more extensive review of it on TripAdvisor (same screen name). The activities were great--a combination of walking and wildlife observation. We enjoyed seeing plenty of birds, insects and reptiles. We also saw six kinds of monkeys. We didn't have any unusual or "big" animal encounters but the guides were so enthusiastic about even the little things that we enjoyed it completely. The lodge is like a little paradise on the river--nice cabins, great food and outstanding service.

    Otovalo - We were not in Otovalo for the Saturday market day because of how our schedule had to function but there was still plenty to see. The handicrafts market has plenty of shopping and there is a local food market that offers interesting people watching. We have seen a lot of markets throughout our travels and, actually, had been to a local market day earlier in the trip at Pujili which satisfied our curiosity about markets in Ecuador. I'm sure Saturday market is a spectacle but Otovalo is worth visiting for a few days even if you don't go on a Saturday because of all the other activities you can do nearby. I would NOT do a day trip here from Quito unless it is market day, though.

    Cuicocha Lake, near OtovaloThere is a single trail all around the lake, which has two little islands in the middle. The trail was rigorous, with lots of up and down. The views were beautiful, though, as we hiked along the rim. The hotel we stayed in arranged for us to have a driver there and back and packed lunches for us. The lake is named because locals thought the two little islands looked like cuy, their word for guinea pigs. There were shelters about halfway around but it was only 11:20 when we got to those and we weren’t hungry yet. We continued on until the trail left the crater rim and had our lunch at a set of benches with a tiny view of the lake. It actually did take us the full 4 ½ hours to get around the lake. We stopped a lot for photos and, of course, our lunch break. The last portion of the trail was on a dirt road with views of the surrounding valley and farms. We stopped in the little visitors center back at the beginning, which explained the geology of the area and has a goofy statue of a spectacled bear.

    This lake is worth visiting even if you don't hike--there are spots for great views and there are also boats that give ticketed rides around the lake. The scenery is great.

    Cotocachi: We read that this is the town where many leather goods are made and sold. We actually visited because a friend lives there and there are, indeed, many leather shops. We browsed the stores but didn't find any great deals or bargains and it isn't like the leather districts in Morocco where you actually see people at work. So overall this wasn't very interesting for us.

    Peguche: We stopped at the waterfall just to see it. It's a medium sized cascade with a path to it and a bridge across it. Overall I would say it was nice but not worth going out of your way to see. Many locals walk there from Otovalo so if you like hiking or trekking, that might be a nice way to see it.

    Jose Cotocachi Weaving, Peguche: This was a great stop to combine with the Peguche waterfall since we were interested in local artisans. Our hotel had a number of this place's weavings displayed and they were beautiful. We were able to see one of the weavers at work and look through their large selection of designs. The prices were very reasonable, too.

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    Accommodations

    They ran from cheap hostels to the really nice splurge at Napo Lodge. I reviewed all the places we stayed on Trip Advisor if you want to see a specific one I mentioned in my itinerary. Most of them were adequate but not outstanding so I will just give mentions to the notable ones here:

    Posada del Quinde, Otovalo - This is a beautiful, well-run, welcoming hotel in Otovalo. It is not on a main square but it is close enough to walk. The owner is friendly and helpful --she chatted with us about our daily plans and offered helpful advice or assistance. They also have terrific food in their restaurant, so even if you don't stay here, I would eat here. We loved it and would gladly stay here again.

    Las Amazonas Inn (Hostel), Quito - Notable for being disappointing. Our friend reserved a specific room here for us (with a window and small balcony) and it was occupied when we tried to check in. They claimed to us there was no reservation. When my friend went back to talk to them they said the room had been booked by the others before she even booked for us. Either way, that was an unimpressive start. The place itself is nothing great--just kind of "blah" but most of the rooms don't have windows and the breakfast service is really loud in the mornings. The things it has going for it are that it is inexpensive and well-located in the Mariscal. I would not stay here again.

    Napo Lodge - Already got my raves, above, but wanted to highlight how nice the place is as a hotel in addition to the wonderful activities. The room was nice, the bathroom was great, and the staff were all wonderfully attentive and nice. They have hot water and electricity all day, they offer laundry service, wifi (additional cost), and the setting is superb. I wish I could have stayed here longer.

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    Food

    We try to be adventurous when we travel (though I am vegetarian) but didn't have much opportunity for food adventure in Ecuador. I tried some kind of small red fruit that I bought in the Pujili market. And there were chances for my husband to try cuy (guinea pig) but he decided not to as it didn't appeal to him. We got lots of tropical fruit, though, and empanadas.

    Overall, we found Ecuadorean food to be pretty bland. Lots of plain potatoes, some plain beans, rice, etc. There was usually aji available to add flavor but it wasn't all that lively. Many of our meals were included in our hostel stays because there weren't any real restaurants in the places we stayed.

    The best thing we ate were soups. Soups are common and varied and really delicious and flavorful.

    Cafe Pachamama (restaurant for Posada del Quinde Hotel), Otovalo: This was one of the best meals we ate in Ecuador. The portions (and prices) were large and all the food is fresh and delicious. We are breakfast as part of our room rate, but on the last day I couldn't resist ordering quinoa pancakes with blackberry syrup--yum! and my husband got a huge fresh omelet. We also ate dinner here one night which was wonderful--I had a vegetarian enchilada casserole with mole sauce.

    Chimichangas, Otovalo This is on the second floor of a building and I happened to see it while we looked for a different Tex-Mex place a friend recommended (it's called Taco Bell and is not the American chain). We had good drinks and pretty decent Tex-Mex food here.

    Casa Nostra, Quito - This was about a half a block away from Posada del Maple in Quito and it was delicious Italian food. It seems to be run by an Italian family and was a wonderful restaurant with a nice atmosphere and wood-fired ovens.

    Q, Quito - Right on the Plaza Foch (Gringolandia) this was a really USA style restaurant, which was actually really welcome at the last night of our trip. The food is priced like American mid-ranged restaurants (which is expensive in Ecuador) but they have a good variety and good drink specials. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here as it isn't anything special but it fits the bill if you are in the area and looking for a dinner choice.

    The Corner Pub - A gringo hangout n the Mariscal but a good place to stop in for a drink. We didn't eat here.

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    Just came across this -- thanks so much for taking the time to share your experiences. Great read and will file away to look at again when we begin planning our trip for next year.

    In terms of time, did you find that you had enough, would have enjoyed longer or shorter? Re food -- remind me what you thought of the food in Chile so I can somewhat compare of food tastes. Thanks!

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    HI yestravel,

    We had the perfect amount of time--enough to enjoy each place without being rushed. I would have liked to have had enough time (and money) to go to the Galapagos but we aren't there yet. I think most people would also have included Cuenca--which we probably could have done by cutting off a couple days from the hike/bike portion. But we would rather hike/bike longer than tour a city so this worked well for us.

    Food in Chile for me? My husband enjoyed all the fresh seafood. For me, Chilean food was not a highlight (other than all the tons and ton and tons of fresh fruit and juices). But what was better in Chile was the choices of cuisine offered. There was a much larger variety of restaurants everywhere we went and more variety on menus. The food cultures are quite distinct because of the relative wealth of Chile compared to Ecuador.

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    Hi! Thanks so much for your response. And I do appreciate that you took the time to write this up -- there is so little on Ecuador and I'm sure your TR will be a great resource for anyone planning on going. We'll probably start really researching this Spring to figure out what we want to see and do.

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