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June travel in the Galapagos, Andean Ecuador, and Machu Picchu

June travel in the Galapagos, Andean Ecuador, and Machu Picchu

Old Jul 19th, 2015, 06:21 PM
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Good points, I can see how that would happen. I don't like the aspect of everything planned with little to no flexibility.
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Old Jul 19th, 2015, 06:21 PM
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Also it seems like tours stay in vanilla places. We tend to like smaller more local places to stay.
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Old Jul 21st, 2015, 11:03 PM
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GALAPAGOS

From Cuzco we flew to Lima and to Quito for an overnight stay, continuing on very early the next morning, June 3, to Baltra via Guauyaquil. At Guayaquil airport we stayed on the plane for 40 minutes as the cleaners came through and fumigated the overhead baggage bins, ostensibly to kill any living thing that might inadvertently be carried onto the islands. I would have preferred to exit the plane for that exercise, but it seems to be standard procedure to keep the onward passengers onboard.

Baltra airport, the only purpose for being on Baltra, started out as a U.S. military airstrip during World War II and is now one of the main airports in the Galapagos. From there we took a short bus ride to the dock to catch a ferry to nearby Santa Cruz. We were excited to see iguanas and pelicans even at the ferry dock—just a hint of what was to come.

We then boarded the Coral II, our boat for the next five days, which took us to the west coast of Santa Cruz. There we had our first panga (zodiac) ride below steep cliffs to see marine iguanas, nesting blue-footed boobies, and other marine bird species at Balena Bay/ Eden inlet. We had an opportunity to do some deep-water snorkeling once we got back to the Coral, and I and two others jumped at the chance. From the boat’s supply I ferreted out a wet suit and snorkel gear that fit. I was glad to have the wet suit because the water was quite cool. By now it was early evening so the light wasn’t great and the water was kind of murky, but it was nice to get into the water. The highlight was when I spotted a hieroglyphic hawkfish wedged into some rocks, staring up at us.

Overnight, we and the constantly present frigate birds gliding above us took the long trip around the north end of Isabella to its northwest coast. (Watching those birds day after day was mesmerizing!) In the middle of the night we passed the active volcanic eruption near the eastern shore, but nothing was visible in the mist so the captain didn’t sound the wake-up call. We all had agreed in advance that he would call us out to the deck only if we could actually see something. We were sorry we didn’t get to see the eruption but were happy to be able to get some sleep.

The next days we settled into a wonderful routine of morning and afternoon panga rides along the shoreline and snorkeling either off the beach or off the panga. The snorkeling got much better in the daylight, and the animal viewing was stupendous all around. On the cliffs, close up, we observed blue-footed and Nazca boobies, pelicans, brown noddies, flightless cormorants, tropicbirds, marine iguanas, and penguins on the second morning.

On one afternoon we visited the youngest island, Fernandina. A “dry landing” (“dry” because we debarked at a small dock, but we still had to take off our shoes a few steps after going onshore because we crossed a wet inlet) was followed by a two-hour walk along the coast out to Espinosa Point. Sea lions frolicked in the sea and on the beach, an overabundance of marine iguanas covered the lava, multicolored sally lightfoot crabs scuttled among them, and a group of Galapagos snakes slithered on the rocks (a rare sight according to our naturalist). Snorkeling brought underwater views of colorful fish, sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, sharks, and flightless cormorants. By now the Galapagos had more than lived up to the hype.

Urbina Bay, on the west side of Isabella Island, was one of the places visited by Charles Darwin in 1835 and is famous for its finches. This was a highlight of our time in the islands, with sightings of land iguanas, including a copulating pair (which the naturalist had never seen “in action”), and giant tortoises lumbering down the paths. A dry landing at Tagus Cove a little farther up the coast of Isabella offered a steep hike in the hot sun up a tephra cone with a lake inside it to some spatter ramparts, with excellent views all the way. The lack of animals of this hike disappointed most of the people who took the walk, but my geologist husband was happy because, he says, the rim of the tephra cone was composed of the best accretionary lapilli he had ever seen. At least someone was happy. (I had listened carefully to the naturalist’s advance description and had chosen to opt out, instead spending some downtime alone, relaxing on the boat’s sundeck.)

At some point during this period we had an excursion that involved a “wet landing” on the beach. Normally that just involves hopping off the panga into no higher than knee-deep water and walking up to the beach, and that’s just what happened for the group in the other panga from the Coral. When it was our turn, however, it was our bad luck (and bad navigation on the part of the boatman) that we approached the shore just as an unusually large set of waves was also heading in. What had been calm water turned into churning waves pounding onshore. On wet landings our boatman liked to turn the panga around so we could exit off the back, which was normally helpful, but to do this he had to turn off the motor and lift it out of the water to avoid grounding it in the sand. Thus he was powerless (literally) to get the panga out of the dangerous situation we were suddenly in. It started twisting around and was at a 90-degree angle to the shore as the biggest wave in the set came quickly toward us.

Oh yeah, as I saw that wave coming it passed through my mind that the panga, with all 8 of us on it, would be flipped and we’d be underwater. Our guide and the boatman must have thought the same thing because they both started yelling for us to get off the panga. Easier said than done—all 8 of us couldn’t get off at once, and the first one who did was hit by a wave and went under. I was knocked onto the floor of the panga by all the jostling in the waves but did manage to pull myself up and over the side into what was then only waist-deep water and then trudged onto the beach. A bit of an adventure, but fortunately everybody was safe and the guide and boatman were able to keep the panga upright, bail out the water that had flooded it, and eventually restart the motor.

Now that I’ve blamed the boatman for poor judgment, I’ll admit that I made a big mistake too. I’d been lulled by our previous uneventful landings into thinking that it was unnecessary to put my camera and cell phone into a ziplock bag, so I had slipped the phone into my pants pocket and “protected” my big Canon camera and zoom lens by tucking it in front of me, into my life jacket. When I was thinking that the boat was going to flip, I was mainly concerned that the camera would go under with me, ruining all the pictures I had taken in Peru. Fortunately I was able to keep it dry, but I did drown the phone, making it useless for the rest of the trip (tried covering it for 24 hours in rice but no luck). Lesson learned: always put your electronics/camera in a waterproof bag when you’re on a panga!

The remainder of our cruise took us north along the channel between Fernandina and Isabella, where we spotted breaching whales at a distance and then watched a huge swarm of dolphins swimming nearby and twirling nearly vertically in the air. That happened just as the sun was going down and was one of the most amazing sights of the trip. The next morning we did a wet landing near the abandoned salt works at Egas port. A marvelous hike south along the shoreline showed us an abundance of wildlife, both species we’d seen already and new ones like fur seals, herons, and hawks. We also saw some members of another group behaving badly--they got way too close to and pestered a fur seal while their group leaders did nothing to stop them. I talked to our own guide about it afterward and she said that some guides are hesitant to challenge tourists because of the bad reaction they get. Yikes!

After snorkeling off the beach and lunch back on the boat, we skirted around to the east side of the island, spending the afternoon at the physically magnificent Sullivan’s Bay. We walked for about an hour across a gigantic 19th-century lava flow that had spectacular pahoehoe features, large gas blisters, hornitos, and spatter features (more words from the geologist husband). The flow covered an area as far as the eye could see and had been emitted from a volcano on the island located some 10 kilometers away.

Back at the beach we had a final opportunity to snorkel, but my husband got a bad bloody nose so couldn’t risk it. He didn’t notice it at the time but must have been bitten on the toe by a spider while he sat on the rocks waiting for us snorkelers—the bite became infected a couple days later and he had difficulty walking. Fortunately by that time we were back in Quito with access to a doctor, and a strong dose of antibiotics took care of the problem.

The boat rocked and rolled its way back Santa Cruz overnight and we awoke just outside the port from which we had initially disembarked. We took pangas to the dock and loaded our bags into a bus, then took a second bus to El Chato Tortoise Reserve refuge high in the hills, with a more verdant vegetation than exists along the drier coastline. At the reserve we changed into rubber boots and walked a short distance to see a couple of land tortoises wallowing in the mud; we also entered one of the lava tubes on the reserve. We all felt that the long bus ride was not worth the effort, but I suppose it would be if you wanted to see giant tortoises and had no other opportunity to do so.

Our Galapagos experience came to a close with the short ferry ride back to Baltra and our flight back to Quito. In retrospect, we would have gladly spent more time in the islands, but we were thrilled with what we experienced in the time we had.

Next (and last!): Andean Ecuador
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Old Jul 22nd, 2015, 08:10 AM
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Wonderful descriptions of your trip to the Galapagos. Quite the adventure! After reading it, I'm convinced I made the right decision to skip it...just not my cuppa tea. Glad you enjoyed it. Lucky you were returning to Quito to treat your husband. Looking forward to Ecuador.
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Old Jul 23rd, 2015, 11:42 AM
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OMG on the panga flip!

I took a mostly different itinerary. I was most interested in Espanola and Genovesa, so did the eastern islands. We didn't have any adventurous landings of the type you had! Fortunate that there were not more serious injuries.

I understand that waters can be rougher around Isabela and Fernandina and also as you get later into August-October.

I bought a small Sea to Summit dry sack and used it for every landing, it comes with a buckle and was also more convenient as a carry bag than a ziplock.
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Old Jul 23rd, 2015, 05:59 PM
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Thanks for hanging in there and wading through this longer-than-intended trip report. A month of travel takes time to write up!

yt, we loved the Galapagos but it's a very expensive trip, so if you're not all that interested, you're right to spend your time in beautiful mainland Ecuador. And mlgb, that dry sack sounds like a great idea. Before my next boat trip I'm going to look for one.

QUITO

Hotels: Swissotel, http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/quito/
Hotel Patio Andaluz, http://www.hotelpatioandaluz.com/

We had stayed in Quito overnight on our way to the Galapagos and now were back at the same hotel in the Floresta neighborhood, the five-star Swissotel, for two final nights with the group. Perhaps even more than the Westin Lima, this hotel could have been anywhere in the developed world. There is a small crafts market right down the street, but even though it was well stocked with handicraft items, it looked a little sad because no one else was there. More useful was the supermarket on the same street, where we bought Ecuadorean chocolate bars and coffee at reasonable prices to take home with us for little gifts. Meals at the hotel were excellent, but we wanted some local charm!

That we got big-time at our other Quito hotel, Patio Andaluz on Garcia Moreno in the historical center. We booked here on the spur of the moment just 10 days before our stay, for the final night of our trip, so we could take in more of central Quito’s ambiance both during the day and in the evening. The historical center can be somewhat empty at night, so it’s important to be attentive to your surroundings after dark. We got a really great rate on our room ($125) and were also able to check in early so we could enjoy the whole day downtown. Patio Andaluz is a world heritage colonial house, occupied since the 16th century and absolutely lovely. The location, just a block and a half from Plaza Independencia, is outstanding as well. And it has a well-curated gift shop and an excellent restaurant in the main courtyard. I highly recommend the hotel, especially if you can get a rate like ours.

While in Quito we also had the use of a relative’s apartment in La Concepción, a residential neighborhood north of the center. We took advantage of that for 4 nights but found we much preferred a more central location—traffic in Quito can be bad, and though taxis are reasonable, the time it takes to get from one place to another eats into your day.

The historical center of Quito is beautiful, as is the setting of the city as a whole. We got a good view of it from La Basilica, the tallest church in Ecuador, where we paid a small admission fee and took the elevator and stairs up to the viewing platform. I declined to climb up even further into the towers (too open for me!), but the views were good even from the more protected platform and included close-ups of the stained glass window and the animal gargoyles decorating the exterior. An even more panoramic view was from Parque Itchimbia high above the east side of the centro. Dozens of oversized hummingbirds were displayed on the paths, and the main structure in the park, the Palacio de Cristal, brought from Germany in the late 1800s, added interest.

One morning we went even higher, taking the Teleférico cable car from the base of Pichincha volcano up to Cruz Lomo at 14,000 feet. Spectacular views of Quito spread below us. It was chilly and mostly cloudy that day so we didn’t see the other volcanos in the distance, but there was no line for the cable car so I guess that was the trade-off. We eventually did get to see all those beautiful volcanos in the coming days. On top of the hill We spent some time slowly wandering further up the mountain but eventually turned back because at that altitude climbing the several hours to the top of Pinchincha was not on our agenda. If you do decide to do that, be prepared for the cold.

During our days in central Quito we ogled at the over-the-top golden interior of baroque La Compañia de Jesús; walked through the huge Monasterio de San Francisco and stopped in at the well-stocked fair-trade artisan shop next door, Sinchi Sacha; and hit several other spots while wending our way through the streets around the Plaza Independencia. As I mentioned earlier, we spent a very nice evening listening to music and having a light meal at one of the bars/restaurants in La Ronda. The only real shopping we did in Quito was for Ecuadorean national team soccer shirts for our son and 3-year-old granddaughter. We found them at the Marathon store in a large shopping center in the new part of town--expensive but a big hit as gifts for a change of pace from the artisan goods. I guess one really can get too much alpaca.

At 11:00 on a Monday morning we gathered with many others in the plaza to see President Correa, the vice president, and invited guests greet the citizens of Ecuador from the balcony of the presidential palace, preceded by a ceremony with marching guards and officers on horseback in colorful uniforms. Apparently this ceremony happens every Monday, and the president makes an appearance if he’s in town. We heard a lot about Correa from several people--I think you either love him or can't abide by his policies.

While we were still with the tour group we were taken by bus to the Mitad del Mundo monument, which is located on the equator (actually a few tenths of meters north of the GPS rectified-position of the equator). This is a place we likely would not have visited on our own, and after being there we agreed that it was pretty much a waste of time. It’s set in a strangely deserted “village” of shops—in one of them you can get your passport stamped to show you’ve been to the equator. Hmm. We took an elevator up to the top of the tower for views and walked back down through some marginally interesting exhibits of local life.

When we were thinking about this part of the trip we briefly considered staying at the (free) apartment in Quito for a longer period and taking day trips out of the city. In the end we did only one—to Cotopaxi—but spent also made a separate trip to Otavalo for two nights.

COTOPAXI

I briefly described the drive to Cotopaxi earlier. Ecuador’s second-highest mountain (19,350 feet) was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, creating some of its own clouds in a gas eruption that was going on while we were in the area. We weren’t planning to do the climb—we had a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old with us on this jaunt—but we hoped to hike around a bit.

Upon arrival at the park entrance we filled out the required national park paperwork (bring your passport!) and then we drove on up to the gorgeous, tundra-like high plain, or páramo, below the mountain. We branched off on a good road to Tambopaxi hostal for a simple but delicious lunch. A couple groups of climbers were also eating there, in advance of climbing the volcano very early the next morning. They were lucky, because the next day was gloriously clear. I heard that later in the month climbing was restricted because the gases being produced by the volcano were considered dangerous. Another group was taking break from biking down part of the volcano—a cold ride—and others were warming up after riding horses across the plain. Great place for adventure, with amazing views, and the hostal looked like a very nice place to base for those activities. If we hadn’t had other plans for the following days we definitely would have stayed overnight and done some walks on the plain. http://www.tambopaxi.com/en/

After lunch we drove further up the mountain to the parking area below the refuge, at the snow line. My husband’s sore foot and the cold, wind-driven rain that was coming at us sideways prevented us doing more than a cursory walk here, however. Instead we soon headed down the hill by car, passing wild horses that roamed nearby, and stopped at a small lake for more views of the volcano. The swirling clouds were incredibly dramatic, and happily the mountain opened up enough to display the red colors for which it is famous. If it had been sunnier we might have seen a nice reflection of the mountain in the lake, but I guess we’ll just have to be satisfied looking at pictures of that scene. On the way back to Quito we thought about stopping at the popular and recommended steakhouse on the right side of the highway (forgot the name; look for the black-and-white cow signs on the wall) but were still full from lunch so we passed. Next time!

OTAVALO

Lodging: Ali Shungu Mountaintop Lodge, http://www.alishungumountaintoplodge.com/

We had hired a van to take us to Otavalo. On the way we stopped in the town of Cayambe to look for a shop that our niece and nephew had been to previously that bakes the local specialty, bizcochos, on their premises. After driving through the narrow streets many times (with dozens of bizcocho ships), we finally gave up and went to a place recommended by our driver. No open kitchen in which to observe the process, but the bizcochos (basically cylindrical, like breadsticks, but somewhat sweet and melt-in-the-mouth, a little like shortbread) were good, especially when dipped in dulce de leche. I’m not a fan of either bread or most sweet things, but bizcochos and dulce are a great combination.

The drive from Cayambe to Otavalo was beautiful—much better than the the fairly ugly drive out of Quito--taking us past the crater lake of Lago San Pablo. From the town we turned southwest into the hills on a progressively narrowing road and then up an exceedingly bumpy dirt track to our destination, the wonderful Ali Shungu, which is 3 miles above Otavalo. It’s run by American ex-pats who have lived in the area for more than 30 years and is one of the nicest places we have ever stayed. I loved this place! It has a perfect setting in lovely gardens with view out to the mountains. The four beautiful chalets with wood-burning fireplaces (stoked morning and evening by the friendly staff) and huge bay windows were amazingly spacious, comfortable, and filled with lovely collectibles (one of which met an unfortunate end at the hands of the ever curious toddler we were traveling with). Idyllic is the word created for such places. We had excellent soup for lunch shortly after our arrival and wonderful meals and breakfasts thereafter; all included in the price of $97 per person per night. We and our nephew and his family had separate chalets but spent significant time in both. The owner, Frank (aka Francisco), was very helpful and passionate about traditional Ecuador. What a find.

On our first afternoon we left my husband home because of his swollen foot and had a driver take us down to Peguche village for a visit to the waterfall by the same name. The walk through a forested park to the falls was okay, but the falls themselves were a decent destination, made better by the fact that we were soon joined by a group of indigenous women, dressed in lovely skirts and white blouses, and a film crew who proceeded to film them singing and dancing in the pool at the base of the falls. I’d love to see the video from that.

Over the course of our two days in Otavalo we visited the markets twice. On Friday we took a ride into town so we could visit the crafts market without all the crowds expected for Saturday. In the end, it turned out to be eerily quiet, even antiseptic, and even the stall owners basically ignored us. On Saturday, however, the scene was completely different. Frank gave us a ride into town, where we immediately saw that the place was alive with energy from all the locals who had come to town from surrounding areas to buy and sell, as well as with a fair number of tourists. First we visited the animal market, where every conceivable domestic animal was available for sale. We wandered around and between clusters of horses, cows, calves, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, and tiny chicks. It was fun to watch people bargain and make their purchases—Frank told us that many people purchase young animals one year and bring it back to the market the next year, after it has matured. He also said that the government is going to move the market next year to a town about 15 km down the road—what a loss to Otavalo!

After an hour or so among the animals, we drove with Frank to the crafts market where he dropped us off and gave us instructions to take a taxi back to the dirt road and the driver call Ali Shungu to send someone down the road to pick us up. This time the crafts market was really hopping. There were lots and lots of new sellers and the stalls extended on to surrounding streets. We had no trouble finding interesting things to buy, and we found the scene enthralling. If you plan to go to Otavalo, you should make every effort to be there for the Saturday market.

Next: Cuenca and towns on the way back to Quito. I promise that this LONG trip report will end soon!
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 02:34 PM
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CUENCA

Hotel: Casa Ordoñez, http://www.hotelcasaordonez.com

We had reserved our flight to Cuenca on LAN Ecuador a few weeks ahead of our trip but had been uncertain how long to stay and what to do on our way back to Quito. Finally, a few days before arriving in Cuenca, we made the decision to spend four days in the city and then make our way by bus back to Quito, stopping overnight in a few places along the way. We were able to secure hotel reservations on short notice and, aside from in Baños, encountered very few other tourists along the way.

From Cuenca airport we took a taxi ($3) to centrally located Casa Ordonez, a lovely colonial-style house that had been in the owner’s family for more than 100 years. The very friendly and helpful owner, Alberto, greeted us and each morning offered suggestions for things to do and places to eat. The staff were well trained, attentive, and unobtrusive, with very good English-language skills. There were just a couple of other guests, so we basically had the whole place to ourselves. Very quiet! And we arrived on a Sunday, which is exceedingly quiet in Cuenca, so it was like we had the whole town to ourselves that first day.

On Alberto’s suggestion we rode the open-top bus for an introductory tour ($8 each), which gave us a sense of how the gorgeous city is laid out. When we weren’t otherwise occupied over the next three days, we hung out in the main square and walked all over the historical center and down the hill along the rushing Río Tomebamba. On the square we visited both the old (1500s) and new (1800s) cathedrals, the latter during the packed Sunday service, and climbed to the platform atop the Cathedral Nuevo for views of the iconic blue and white cathedral towers and over the main part of the city. We also enjoyed the well-done cultural exhibits at the Museo del Banco Central Pumapungo and the adjacent archaeological remains of pre-Colombian Pumapungo, located above the river. Only low walls and well-constructed terraces remain, but it was definitely worth spending some time there. On a walk back to the center we stopped for a really nice lunch at El Maiz restaurant, which gave us the opportunity to sample four different kinds of Ecuadorean tamales, including one made of the favorite local grain, quinoa.

We avoided Gringoland, the local name for the more modern ex-pat community across the river. I have nothing against ex-pats, but it was more fun to spend time in the beautiful central part of the city. On a couple of afternoons we did, however, enjoy sitting at an outdoor bar/café frequented by ex-pats and watching the Copa America games—it's always more fun to watch soccer with a crowd. Too bad Ecuador played so poorly.

We arranged with Alberto for an English-speaking driver, Miguel, to take us on two day trips out of the city. The first was to El Cajas National Park, just 12 miles northwest of Cuenca. Miguel picked us up at 9 a.m. and we drove into the mountains on a fairly recently constructed road that eventually heads down to Guayaquil. The construction of this highway halved the time it takes to get between the two cities and opened up many commercial possibilities. We soon entered a beautiful valley with many waterfalls. We headed down a side road to a smaller valley where we took a beautiful hour-plus walk around a marshy lake—supposedly good for bird watching but no birds in sight. Still, it was a lovely place, with only two other people on the path. From there we continued up to the pass at Tres Cruces through open, once glaciated country that reminded us of northern Scotland. At the viewpoint the cold wind was howling, so we decided not to hike further up the mountain to an even higher viewpoint. But there appeared to be wonderful opportunities for hiking in the area if we had more time. Back down the valley, we had an excellent lunch at Dos Chorreras, an ambitious and well-appointed hosteria built on property that Miguel’s grandfather once owned. If we ever return to Cuenca we will try to spend a couple of nights here—it would be perfect as a base for hiking, and it offers trail rides and trout fishing as well.

On the way back to town, Miguel told us his story about migrating to the United States as a 17-year-old undocumented person: the flight to Guatemala, the long, multistage trip to Mexico and north to Chihuahua, which included a 23-hour ride in the undercarriage of a truck, and the eventual arrival and poor treatment in Phoenix, followed by a demand from the handlers for more money to get him to his destination in New York, where he had family. His brother made a similar trip, as did his wife. Although his two kids, both born in the States, are getting college degrees there, he ultimately regretted his decision to go north those many years ago, particularly since the friends from his youth who didn’t make the trip all managed to establish successful professional lives in Ecuador. Miguel’s story was touching and gave us insight into the travails of an undocumented immigrant.

On another day Miguel drove us to three outlying towns that specialize in craft products. First we visited a large orchid nursery in Gualaceo called Ecuagenera that grows some 4,000 varieties of orchid. We were shown around by a friendly and knowledgeable young woman who particularly loved the micro-orchids, smaller than anything we’d seen before. Next we spent some time at a family weaving workshop that specializes in ikat designs, where I couldn’t resist buying a few fine examples. Then we drove a fair distance to the town of Sigsig to visit a small factory that produces Panama hats. The hats are woven by hundreds of women from the surrounding area and then are shaped and dressed up with bands and other decoration at the factory and sold there. Yes, I bought one of those too, and amazingly it survived the journey home in my suitcase. Our last stop was in the town of Chordeleg, which specializes in silver and gold jewelry; I wasn’t tempted by the styles sold in the dozens of shops, but the town was kind of nice.

ALAUSÍ

Hotel: Rincon de Isabel, http://www.rincondeisabel.com.ec/

After our four days in Cuenca, a four-hour bus trip took us to Alausí through a gorgeous mountainous landscape, with the countryside becoming more beautiful by the minute. Low mist clung to the mountains and valleys much of the way, and old terraces reminded us of the Sacred Valley in Peru. We were, as we always seemed to be on our bus trips, the only tourists, and many of the passengers were indigenas dressed in traditional clothing. When we arrived in Alausí we asked someone to call us a taxi ($1) to take us to our lodgings at Rincon de Isabel, which we had booked a couple days earlier on booking.com. The inn was about 1 km outside the center (easily walkable without luggage).

The inn sits atop a cliff overlooking a rushing river in a pretty valley. On our arrival we were greeted by Victor, a retired teacher, who walked us through his lovely garden and introduced us to some new fruits. He even gave me a chance to eat a tree tomato right off the tree. We’d had lots of tree tomato juice already, but eating the firm fruit was really interesting. Victor spoke mostly Spanish and a little English, we the reverse, but we managed to communicate. He gave us the grand tour while we waited for his wife, who apparently runs the lodging aspect (Victor manages the big garden alongside the row of rooms). The place started off with three units; they've added six more, all simply constructed, and have some higher-end units under construction across the garden. There’s a comfortable lounge area with big windows overlooking the river, where we got to taste a strong locally made liquor. Eventually we got into our simple but comfortable room and then took another taxi back into town for dinner at a little Italian restaurant recommended by Victor (by this time we were longing a break from Ecuadorean cuisine). Very good pizza! We were the only people in the restaurant and the only ones staying at the inn that night, though a large group had just left and another group was coming in the next day.

The Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo) train was due to leave at 11:00 a.m. the next day, so we said good-bye to Victor and his wife around 9:30 and $1 later were dropped off by the taxi at the station. We had time to pick up our tickets (reserved on the Internet the week before) and buy some handwoven bags at a nice little shop in the station while we waited with the small crowd that had gathered to ride the train. Out of nowhere the tourists had shown up—not sure where they were keeping themselves! There were plenty of Ecuadorean tourists among them, so the wait was kind of festive. The train trip was nice, winding down a spectacular valley, but seems a bit overhyped. Oh that one could still ride on top of the cars! We each had a window seat facing each other for the rather short trip to Sibambe, at the base of the Nariz del Diablo mountain. We had about 45 minutes in Sibambe for refreshments and to watch tourist-oriented dancers put on a little show before reboarding the train and heading back to Alausí.

RIOMBAMBA

Hotel: Mansion Santa Isabella, http://mansionsantaisabella.com/

From the Alausí station we walked three blocks to the bus station for the lovely 2½ hour bus ride that took us to Riobamba through green mountains and valleys, but sadly without views of Chimborazo, which was enveloped in clouds. A $2 taxi ride brought us to the Mansion Santa Isabella, another great old house with an interior courtyard, but with a staff that was at best distracted. The décor was nice and our room was small but comfortable, but again we had the feeling that we were the only people staying there. The next morning at breakfast we did see a couple of single men who apparently also were guests. The meager breakfast seemed to be an afterthought. The hotel was a disappointment at the price—I think we paid $110 for the night, much more than at our other stops on this part of the trip.

Riobamba didn’t really excite us. It’s a large, busy city that’s not very attractive, in my opinion. It was after 4:00 when we got in, so we set out for an exploration of the area surrounding the hotel. It was Friday so the streets were buzzing with young people—more so than anywhere else we’d been. We passed by an outdoor concert that pumped out a Latin American beat and drew a big crowd. Ecuador was playing Mexico in the Copa America, so we stopped at café and had a drink and good empanadas while we watched the team finally win one. Then we moved on to the restaurant La Due Sorelle nearby, which was well recommended but not quite what we expected from reviews we’d read on TA. Nonetheless the grilled chicken with potatoes filled the bill for a tasty meal. When we headed back to the hotel the streets were still hopping.

We wanted to get to Baños fairly early the next day so didn’t take the time to visit the well-regarded city museum near the hotel, but before heading to the bus station (Terminal Terrestre), we walked to the old part of town to see the church and take in the Saturday artisan market in the Plaza de la Concepción, which turned out to be a highlight. It was very early so the market was quiet, with vendors still setting up their stalls, but the goods already on display were very nice. I especially enjoyed seeing the line of Singer treadle sewing machines where men and women were already sewing and mending garments. I would have liked to spend more time there and at the other market areas nearby, but it was time to get on our way to our final stop.

BAÑOS

Hotel: La Floresta, http://www.laflorestahotel.com/

The 3-hour bus ride to Baños took us through more gorgeous scenery and local color. It was raining much of the way, which unfortunately didn’t seem to slow the bus down at all. The vegetation changed from the dryer Andes to more tropical cloud forests as we approached the town.

We loved the compact size of the town and the wide selection of good restaurants. Our hotel, La Floresta, was splendid, with brightly colored with rooms situated around a lovely garden, attentively managed by friendly staff. And because Baños is very popular among both Ecuadoreans and foreign tourists, it was refreshingly lively.

We spent two nights here so we did a lot of walking, enjoying the vibe and the setting. We were amazed by the hundreds of stalls selling the same sugar cane products—how do they make any money? Light rain continued off and on during our stay, which dissuaded us from hiking on the muddy footpaths and also made it impossible to catch even a glimpse of Tungurahua volcano. Darn—missed another one!

There’s plenty to do in Baños, and plenty of businesses offering adventure activities. The thermal baths didn’t sound all that appealing (we’ve been spoiled by the fabulous baths in Japan) and we weren’t interested in canyoning, so we settled on the far tamer six-hour bus tour of the waterfalls, for a base price of $6 each. There are biking options for the same route, but after seeing how the bikers have to wrestle with the traffic on the route (no bike lanes), we were glad we had opted for the bus. After a slowish start, it turned out to be a fun and rewarding trip. Since it was the rainy season the falls were roaring. Luckily the rain held off for most of the trip so we could get great views from our open-air seats on top of the bus. Along the way there were options to pay extra for cable car rides across the gorge and ziplining. The best zipline was the second one we stopped at, which didn’t cross the gorge but descended for a long way along the river. We loved the double waterfall of Manto de la Novia and, even more, the amazingly powerful Pailón del Diablo. It’s possible to get right up next to the raging falls at the latter by walking across bridges and down many sets of wet steps. So impressive, and a little scary! One false step and you’d be swallowed up in the cascade.

The next day we caught a bus back to Quito, arriving at the impressive southern terminal about three and a half hours later. I loved taking the bus in Ecuador and am so glad we chose that option over the alternative we had considered, flying back from Cuenca. With more time of course we could have delved deeper into the area, but at least we experienced a taste of the wonderful central sierra.

After one final day in Quito, our month-long journey came to an end and we headed home to San Francisco. As usual, it was great to be back so we can recharge our batteries for the next adventure.
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 02:49 PM
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I had given up hope that you'd finish, aprillilacs!

I agree that the desk staff at La Floresta was especially friendly. Hope you didn't get the morning school calisthenics wake up call, though?
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 05:38 PM
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Thanks so much for a great TR. We'll be following in many of your footsteps come FEb.
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Old Jul 28th, 2015, 06:53 PM
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Thanks to both of you for following this to the end--loyal readers! mlgb, I heard no evidence of the morning calisthenics, but our room at La Floresta faced the garden so perhaps that's why. And yestravel, I've followed in your footsteps on other trips (SE Asia, Turkey, Puglia), so turnabout's fair play. I know you will have a wonderful trip.
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Old Aug 8th, 2015, 09:08 PM
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I've really enjoyed reading your report! I've followed you since your trip around the world a few years ago. We seem to like going to the same places you do and we also travel in a similar fashion. I've been planning a trip (in my head at this point) to Peru and Ecuador, but I have one big concern. I've read that there is a lot of street crime against tourists, especially in Quito, and it is not unusual to be held up at knife point. We are older travelers and maybe would look like easy targets. We like to wander and observe and don't want to feel like prey. We've been a number of places where we have needed to be observant and careful and felt comfortable, but I don't know if Quito would be different. I'm just wondering if this was an issue for you. Thanks. My husband likes the idea of the trip but this might be a deal breaker.
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Old Aug 13th, 2015, 10:03 AM
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Lina, I've read many of your reports as well! As for the safety issue, I never felt uncomfortable in either Ecuador or Peru. In Quito we spent quite a bit of time in the Centro Historico. We were attentive to our surroundings, particularly at night. In La Ronda, the street with music cafes, guards were present on the street, especially at night, but we weren't bothered in any way. I didn't get the sense that Quito was much different from any big city in that respect. I think you would also really enjoy Cuenca.
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Old Aug 13th, 2015, 10:14 AM
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In Quito, the hop on hop off bus is a good way to sight-see on your own. They offer senior rates now (half price if I remember).

Taxis are not expensive as long as you insist that they use the meter. Often on weekends and Sundays they refuse to do that, so you should agree on the fare.

Be sure not to wander too far from the tourist areas of Old Town, not to carry an expensive camera if you are wandering off alone (point and shoot works fine for city shots). I would keep it in an inside jacket pocket when not in use (not around the neck). You also should not carry your passport when walking around (a copy is just fine in most cases). There are walking tours of old Quito as well, which may increase your comfort level.

Many hotels will recommend that you take taxis at night to and from restaurants. If I am just walking a few blocks I will just bring a bit of cash for the meal and that's it.
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Old Aug 13th, 2015, 10:17 AM
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Also, I don't carry an expensive cellphone in Ecuador at all. You can buy an international cellphone online (eg from Walmart) and a sim card in Ecuador (the one I get is for local calls only). For international calls, I just use the telephone shops that are on every corner. Hotels usually have a guest computer for checking emails.

Petty theft (grabbing cellphones and cameras primarily) is the biggest issue and is more common in Quito & Guayquil than in other South American capitals I've been to.
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Old Aug 13th, 2015, 01:37 PM
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Good advice. The open-air bus tour in Cuenca is good too ($8 for several hours). I carried a nice camera in a shoulder bag (not a standard camera case) and took it out when I wanted to photograph something. I don't carry a purse and never have a lot of cash in my pockets. My husband carries the atm card and cash in a small flat pouch that he wears around his neck. We have never been robbed and have traveled worldwide, though I am aware that it can happen anytime. On the other hand, our car was broken into twice when we lived in Manhattan, and my car was stolen last year while parked on the street in front our apartment in SF. It was recovered 3 days later, but last week its soft top was slashed...life in the city!
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Old Aug 13th, 2015, 08:29 PM
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Thanks so much for the replies and advice. I've read a lot of reviews and reports on the areas we want to visit, but not ones that focus much on the crime (except for a few websites). We're comfortable with being careful and not carrying valuables in purse or pocket. I'll keep this trip active in my head. Our dear 16 year old dog is quite fragile so we aren't going far right now, but I can't help myself from planning.
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Old Feb 25th, 2016, 01:27 PM
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Hi April! I hope you come back to this post. I wanted to thank you for mentioning Ali Shungu Mountaintop Lodge. It is just as you described. We love it. Sadly Frank said business has really been off this year and last. He is in the process of building vacation rentals a bit down from Al Shungu as a back up.
We are in our final days in Ecuador and appreciate all the tips we picked up from your TR. We have an ongoing one if you are interested in our travels.
I see you went to Austraila and NZ, we may go this coming winter.
Thanks again!
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Old Apr 5th, 2016, 11:33 PM
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Thanks, yes. I came back here because of your post in the Australia forum, which I've been checking after our most recent trip (I will finish my report soon!!). How disappointing that Ali Shungu's business isn't booming--perhaps because it's a bit far out of town. So glad you enjoyed it, though. Happy travels!
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Old Apr 6th, 2016, 04:54 AM
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Hi again! Excited to be coming to AUS in February. And your TR will provide great ideas and recommendations for us. I see you live in SF. We'll be out there in June and would love to meet up if you're around.
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Old Apr 6th, 2016, 01:13 PM
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That would be great! We'll be away til June 7 but home after that and would love to get together with you--lots of travels to discuss! Email me at [email protected] and I'll give you my phone number. Hope we can set something up.
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