Heading back to mainland Ecuador seemed a little strange after getting use to island life, where mojitos at midday and lazy afternoons on the beach had become our norm. But we were looking forward to explore what many other fellow explorers raved about. From the exciting adventure town of Baños de Agua Santa to the sprawling capital of Quito, the friendly Ecuadorians and their mystery meat meals, Ecuador is a must do on the South American route.
Unfortunately a lot of people skip this small, diverse country under the excuse umbrella of not affording Galapagos and saving on time. However in retrospect we would happily have spent much less time in chaotic Peru and opted to explore more of Ecuador’s natural paradise. Home to 82 volcanos with highly developed highways making bus travel to get from tropical Amazon jungle to highland huts of Indigenous Andean families, or crisp white beaches a breeze. The isanely friendly often English speaking locals, with much less poverty than its neighbours after overcoming the early 2000’s financial crisis with the switch to USD, Ecuador has a lot to offer without breaking the backpacker budget.
Baños de Agua Santa 🛶🌋
Flying back to mainland though the capital Quito, we jumped on a bus straight to Baños from the southern terminal. As with general South American way of life, you rock up, figure out a bus then run to catch it leaving in 10minutes which has worked brilliantly for us so far. Baños (while meaning bathroom in English), is the backpacker home of adventure activities in Ecuador, nestled at the base of the highly active Volcano Tungurahua which it with ample natural hot springs to rest the bones after a day navigating river rapids or flying over canyons. We opted for a hair raising white water rafting day organised through our hostel, for $25NZ including all the gear, videos, and lunch – budget club approved. Being the only non Spanish speakers in our boat provided our guide a bit of fun yelling instructions, but with a stroke of luck we were the only crew who managed to navigate the class 3 and 4 rapids successfully and had to rescue everyone else !
Now the token tourist spot in Baños is the swing on the edge of the world, with Volcan Tungurahua in the background. We ended up traversing the slightly more off route path to reach this spot; climbing/sliding/falling in mud version of the hike up the least travelled vertical side of the volcano itself. Luckily a well prepared Phill had a packet of gummy bears on hand to coax me to the top, and we eventually made the spectacular view to wait our turn for the adrenaline rushing swing.
Latacunga/Quilotoa Crater 🌋☀️
Now if I can give you one solid piece of advice for future travels we have learnt the hard way, it’s to be a tad prepared for public holidays. Especially when these holidays are religion based in a very Catholic based society, and on a Sunday. Thank you Easter for leaving us meandering the streets of Latacunga for hours in search of some food and a humble chocolate treat to remind ourselves of the holiday at home. Eventually I found a donut which had to suffice after committing too much of ones life to the cause. We really only stopped in Latacunga as the gateway to the Quilotoa Loop, a 3 day hike between high altitude towns to reach the extinct volcano crater lake. Unfortunately, our previous day of white water rafting had agrevated Phill’s injured ankle quite badly, so we opted out of the multi day hike in the name of recovery to stay overnight at the crater complete with wood burner in our room, and just feast our eyes on the beautiful lake wandering around the edge.
Sometimes not booking anything in advance doesn’t work out so well, which we found out with the Cotopaxi National Park. We had hoped to stay at the highly recommended Secret Garden hostel there, set under the backdrop of the third highest active volcano in the world with its picture perfect cone symmetry. But without internet in the park we couldn’t WhatsApp the hostel to check accomodation availability, so decided to skip town for the capital of Quito. This actually turned out ok considering the private Cruz del Sur bus for Columbia only left once a week so we would have been pressed for time under the original adventure idea.
Staying in the Secret Garden Quito with rooftop bar views over the city, we explored both the new and old towns filled with cultural delights, huge variety of cuisines, and super friendly people. Our hostel had a free walking tour on hand, and Consuela our lovely guide took us through the religious, traditon and political change in Ecuador, while meandering though the western dressed locals, beautiful sights and finally stopping off at an amazing, legit chocolate shop. Here we learned about the process of making fair trade, hand made chocolate from high quality Ecuadorean cacao, and of course sampling a few delights for mental souvenirs.
We decided to be real tourists for the afternoon, getting a driver to Mitad del Mundo – or the middle of earth equator a short distance from Quito. It is definitely a slightly embarrassing feat the locals take in their stride that the huge Equator monument built in 1979 happens to be incorrectly built about 300m off actual 0 degrees latitude, which the invention of GPS proved. At the actual 0 degree point a museum tributed to Ecuadorian history and tradition has been built around the real equator, where you can see real examples of shrunken heads from the Jivaron Amazon tribe, the effects of the North and South Pole centrifugal forces in opposite directions on either side of the equator line (Phill was very excited to see the Coreolis effect live in action #sciencefactswithphill), and try walk on a straight line with minimum gravity.
The Kai 🌽🧀🐮
From caldo de patas (cow foot soup) to choclo queso (corn and cheese), Ecuador has a huge variety of traditional dishes as well as an abundance of international cuisine in the well developed hubs. A lot of the traditional food stemmed from the Spanish conquest, where locals got the poorer cuts of meat (or hoof in this case), and have managed to turn these very unique dishes into an ongoing cuisine. After seeing the cow feet displayed in the market, we weren’t so keen on that one but I must say the large corn kernels with the soft white cheese found everywhere here was pretty darn tasty ! Our favourite meal while out in Baños was the introduction to Arepas; corn based pita pockets filled with delicious pulled meats and sauces. Venezuelan run Alto Caribe came highly recommended and for only $2 a pop, the super filling gluten free treats were top notch. By the end of our trip we may have out arepa-ed ourselves but for now, the over eating challenge is accepted.
Next stop 🔜 Cali, Colombia 🇨🇴