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Trip Report Trip report: great first trip to Ecuador!

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I just returned on Sunday from a great nine-day trip to Ecuador, my first to that country and my first to South America. I traveled with my cousin; we are two 30-something women from Chicago with intermediate- level Spanish who've previously spent a week each studying in Honduras and Costa Rica. It was a great experience, and I'll try to hit all the main points below, but feel free to ask specific questions if I miss anything! (Excuse my cross-post on tripadvisor.)

The School

We studied for a week at Academia Latinoamericana and I can't say enough good things about the classes, teachers, facilities, activities program, and homestay. It was well-organized, the teachers were top-notch, and it was in a lovely colonial home near Parque Carolina. Our homestay was with a widowed middle-aged woman who was a great cook, was patient with our Spanish, and had a comfortable home.

Quito Activities

We did a number of activities with our teachers from the school (part of the program), including the Old Town (saw President Correa and the changing of the guards, it was a festival week which is why he was there); the quito museum; several monasteries; the Teleferiqo; the artisan market in the Mariscal. We enjoyed all of it but were ready to head out of town at the end of the week, and did a great day trip (below).

Outside Quito Activities

For $80/each, the school arranged a day trip to Hacienda Porvenir near Cotopaxi volcano. It was one of the highlights of the trip! It was a scenic drive (with a very rough road at the end) leading to a pleasant hacienda where we were greeted with canelazos (a hot drink with juice/cane liquor) and empanadas before suiting up in "chagra" (Andean cowboy) gear: wooly leather chaps and a huge woolen poncho. We rode to an altitude of 4,000 meters, passing verdant valleys and packs of wild bulls. It was gorgeous. The riding was sometimes a bit challenging, though the horses are a special kind whose coats and hooves are specially adapted to the cold, steep environment of the paramo. We returned to the hacienda for a fabulous meal (chuletas and llapingachos, potato and cheese balls). We were supposed to hike, but it was pouring rain and my head was killing me (altitude), so we took it easy by the fireplace and then headed back to Quito.

Quito Hotel

Our first night in Quito we stayed at Hotel Los Alpes, which I've reviewed on tripadvisor. In brief, it was comfortable, quiet, safe, and a pleasant place to spend our first night. We liked our airport pickup driver and arranged for him to drive us to Otavalo the next day, and then pick us up on Sunday. The breakfast was fine, the staff friendly.

Otavalo Hotel

We spent one night at Hostal Dona Esther, which I've also reviewed on tripadvisor. It was very clean, beds were surprisingly comfy (the good hot water also was a surprise), and we had a fabulous breakfast at the restaurant (extra charge, but reasonable). We had an OK dinner at Mi Otavalito in town, but wished we'd eated at the restaurant connected to the hotel. The staff was very helpful and watched our bags for several hours on Sat (before check-in) and on Sun (after check out).It felt safe and we were pleased with the value.

Otavalo Activities
The market was fun, though a bit touristy and kind of overwhelming (you just let your gaze linger a moment on an item and you get "a su orden" and a lot of attention from vendors.) We enjoyed wandering around and made a few purchases. The food market (with frying whole tilapia and giant roasted whole pigs) was amazingly fun. But the undisputed highlight of our time in Otavalo was a hike around Lago Cuicocha. We just walked into Runa Tupari agency (which I read about online and the hotel recommended) and arranged the trip the day before. It was $25/each for a driver, guide (who spoke Spanish with us), lunch in Cotocachi, and the 3-4 hour hike. It was a challenge in spots because we were still getting used the altitude, but it was absolutely beautiful.

Altitude
I felt the effects during our first 48 hours; it was mostly a mild headache and fatigue, and not sleeping very well. It went away until we went to hacienda porvenir, which is at 3,500 or so meters, and rode horses up to 4,000 meters. I definitely felt unwell after 3-4 hours up there, but my cousin was just fine. I would consider diamox for a return trip because the hiking in particular was a challenge at this altitude, and I wouldn't want to miss out.

Safety
There's been a lot of talk on this forum about safety, and I was very wary heading into Quito. The school gave us tips that we followed (only licensed taxis, don't walk after 7 or 8 at night, don't carry more than $10 or $20 with you, only carry a copy of your passport--not the real thing, keep your backup in front of you on public transit and in the mariscal and old town, etc). We didn't go out late or drink too much, so we had our wits about us, and we were usually in a group of 2 or 3 women at a time. We lived in a neighborhood that seemed residential and pretty quiet (near Parque Carolina), and the building had a doorman and pretty solid security (more than in Chicago), so we felt fine there. Truly, I never had a moment where I felt any less safe than I do in Chicago, though I take similar precautions here. I don't know if we were just lucky, or if our nerdy schedule of classes, excursions, a drink/snack, dinner with the family, and then homework kept us safe.

The people were generally friendly, patient with our Spanish, and we found the city easy to navigate. We wish we had more time to explore beyond Quito, but we'll have to save that for next time. Thanks to everyone on the forum for sharing their tips and experience!

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