In August 2016 we started our South American travels in Ecuador in order to take advantage of the South American climate and because it was relatively inexpensive to fly into from the U.S. Our plan was to follow the good weather in South America from Ecuador southward while the Andes mountains were moving from spring towards summer and the Amazon Basin still in “dry” season (somewhat less rainy than “wet” season). As a bonus, the currency used in Ecuador is the U.S. dollar, so we wouldn’t have to struggle with money conversions at first. So, we reserved an Airbnb apartment in Quito Ecuador for eleven days to give us time to rest up and take some short excursions out of the city to the surrounding mountains.
QUITO: At 2,850 meters (9,300 feet) high in the Andes mountains, Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is cool and cloudy, but since the equator passes through Quito it’s relatively mild despite its high elevation. Founded in 1534 by Spanish conquistadors. Today the city is a modern, sprawling megalopolis of 2-million perched in a hanging valley on the slopes of the 4,800 meter (15,800 feet) Pinchincha volcano that towers over the city and erupts from time to time (a short mountain by Andean standards). Quito has a large historic city center full of four hundred year old churches, plazas and buildings. Ecuador is in the northern part of the Kichwa area (indigenous descendants of the Inca) and there are many Kichwa-speaking people in traditional dress in Ecuador (mostly in smaller towns).
After easily passing through Ecuadorian customs at the airport we took the forty-minute long cab ride ($25) to Quito and found our Airbnb rental apartment. It was old and creaky, but spacious and in a quiet neighborhood near public transportation and stores. And, it was inexpensive at $27/night which turned out to be important as we found that Quito was rather expensive with costs such as groceries or dining out equaling U.S. prices (although getting around in taxis and buses are very inexpensive). Overall, it was perfect for our introduction into South America.
Within the first few days we toured the historic city center, but then Sonia caught a vicious cold and was laid up in the apartment for the next four days. While she recovered I spent the days planning out our travels through Ecuador and into Peru. I was finding out that long-term traveling is a full time job and it took many hours each day to investigate, reserve and pay deposits on Airbnb’s, tours, domestic air travel, and check reviews on them all to ensure we were going to good places. Writing blog articles and organizing our photos took hours more, so the time in Quito wasn’t wasted.
As the days went by we realized we had made a mistake booking eleven days in Quito. This was too long a time for us in one place, especially in Quito which we found to be cloudy, cool, trafficky, expensive and boring. Still, I took long walks around the city discovering its parks and neighborhoods. One day I took the cable car to 13,500 feet on the slopes of the Pinchincha volcano and climbed the rest of the way to its summit on a 2-mile long obvious trail to the 15,500 ft summit.
We cooked dinners in the apartment and found local lunch spots where we could eat “almuerzo ejecutiva” (businessman’s lunch) for $2 – $3 each in order to cut down on spending in the expensive restaurants in Quito. One night at seven o’clock a 4.6 earthquake rocked the apartment with a loud groaning, creaking sound and we ran into the hallway with the other neighbors (Sonia’s first earthquake and she was impressed). We filled the nights with watching movies n Spanish on the cable TV or Netflix movies on our tablet computers while I continued to plan and reserve places for our next two months of traveling. Finally, Sonia recovered and we took an overnight trip to the Kichwa market town of Otavalo, a two hour bus ride to the north of Quito.
OTAVALO & COTACACHI: The bus ride was ridiculously inexpensive, just $1.75 each for the two-hour ride to Otavalo. We checked into our odd little hotel, Riviera Sucre, for $35/night and walked around the town. Otavalo is famous for its Kichwa market on weekends and the town had a much larger indigenous presence with women dressed in their traditional skirts and head scarves or fedora hats designating which village they were from and the men wearing long braided ponytails. The most common language on the streets was Kichwa and we struggled to understand the Spanish spoken in Ecuador (many different words).
We walked through the plaza de armas and on to the main market in town, a huge warren of fruit and butcher stands winding through a nest of old buildings and alleyways. We ate Ecuadorian foods in local restaurants, (lots of potato and banana) but missed the rich, spicy tastes of Mexico. We found the quality of the food so far was low; tough meat, tasteless vegetables, but the fresh tropical fruit juices were excellent.
The next day we hired a cab to take us to the local condor park in Otavalo, but it was closed and we returned to the hotel for lunch. Afterward we rode the bus to nearby Cotacachi, a smaller even more indigenous town ($0.75 bus ride). Here we hired a cab to take us to the Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve on the slopes of the Cotacachi volcano that rose high over the town. There we walked around the lake formed in a volcanic crater on the slopes of the semi-active volcano and returned to town for lunch eating in a local lunch spot with a group of Kichwa.
In the afternoon we returned to Otavalo and had a beer in a local tavern before going to bed early. We returned to Quito and our apartment by bus the next morning. Otavalo and Cotacachi were interesting, but overall we were disappointed with the overcast days and over-developed land in northern Ecuador and were anxious to leave Quito. So, for our last day in Quito we prepared for jungle weather and packed our hot weather gear into one backpack and made reservations for our hotel near the Quito airport to store our other packs with our other clothes nd gear in them. We did laundry in the apartment, got more cash from the ATM, and prepared to leave.
We were excited about our next stop, Yasuni National Park in the upper Amazon Basin, but we were getting worried that we had planned too much time in Ecuador. Nice country, but expensive and boring so far and we even considered cutting our time in Ecuador short and heading south into Peru. We hoped Yasuni would be better, and if we knew then what awaited us in Yasuni we wouldn’t have been worried at all.
YASUNI NATIONAL PARK: Yasuni in the Ecuadorian Amazon was one of our extravagances; expensive and outside our travel budget. But after investigating it we decided to go; hoping for the best, but prepared for disappointment. We had booked a three night/four day stay at the Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge inside the national park. At $1,324 for both of us it was expensive, but included all meals, guides, tours, a private cabin, and transportation by motor canoe two hours down the Napo river from the jungle town of Coca where we flew in from Quito (a half hour flight at $75 each).
NOTE: Yasuni National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. At 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) it is immense and protects huge áreas of untouched primal jungle where new species of animals and fish are being discovered even today (like the newly discovered Titi monkey). The Napo River flows for 668 miles from the high Andes through Coca to the Amazon. Although the Napo River itself is a heavily used comercial corridor, the Yasuni National Park and Napo Wildlife Center to the west is a vast wilderness of primal jungle with gigantic old-growth sable trees where over five species of monkeys live along with parrots, macaws, toucans, harpy eagles, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, spectecled bears, caimán, giant river otters, giant anteaters, tapir, peccary, pink dolphins, pirana, and manatees to mention just a few of the thousands of species found here.
Yasuni is also unique in that it was established through the efforts of the indigenous Kichwa people living there. They had become alarmed at the destruction and pollution from oil companies, poachers and Ecuador’s own military and sued the government for protection. After a decades long battle the Kichwa won some major court battles and though the area remains threatened by oil exploration they organized an eco-tourism project to sustain the park as an alternative to destructive logging and oil extraction. The Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge that we were staying in is a result of that effort and deep in the interior of the park are other groups of indigenous people other than the Kichwa communities that remain uncontacted by the outside world.
After landing in Coca we took a short taxi ride to the Mision Hotel, the major embarcation point for river traffic, where our guide Eladio met us. Eladio, a local Kichwa resident but fluent in Spanish, would be our personal guide for the next four days. We boarded the long motor canoe with other tourists and locals making the journey down river and as we settled in for the two-hour ride were surprised at the luxurious, comfortable seats in the launch.
The Napo River is huge, a half mile wide in places, yet it isn’t even considered a major tributary to the Amazon. As we motored down river I was at first disappointed with the heavy barge traffic, oil extraction operations, and general commercialization along the river shores. The boat driver dodged hundreds of snags and sandbars in the fast-flowing river as we motored downriver but we made it without a problem. And as we got off the launch and stepped onto the muddy riverbank of Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge all our fears disappeared.
The ecolodge is set within the Kichwa community of Yanunga and we walked through the village to the dining hall, a large wooden structure with palm frond roof. Inside was a bar and large seating área with hand carved tables and chairs. We were greeted with a porter handing us cool, moist towels to freshen ourselves and a glass of cold tropical fruit juice while tropical birds and butterflies swirled around in front of us.
Eladio escorted us to our cabin set in the jungle behind the dining hall where our pack was waiting for us. The cabin was a four-plex under a huge palm frond roof, but completely private with our own bathroom and a comfortable California king-size bed inside a mosquito net and a ceiling fan overhead. It was the most comfortable bed we’d slept in since leaving Seattle over three months ago.
Another surprise was the weather – it wasn’t as hot as we feared. In fact it was pleasant; warm and humid, but mild. Our other fear was mosquitos, but there weren’t any. We had planned well. It was “dry” season and there were almost no biting insects at all. It turns out that September and October are the best months to visit the Yasuni.
After settling into our cabin we met Eladio and walked a ¼ mile trail behind the lodge to a steel wildlife observation tower built into a gigantic sable tree. We climbed the 42 meter high tower (136 feet) to a platform above the treetops where we could see far out across the jungle. Eladio had a spotting scope and pointed out toucans, parrots, macaws and red howler monkeys to us. As the sun set across the jungle we could see how immense the area was – nothing but unbroken jungle from horizon to horizon and full of noises; birds calling, frogs croaking, monkeys howling.
We returned from the tower to the lodge for dinner and enjoyed the best meal of our trip in Ecuador; rice and beef with steamed yucca and banana and fresh guava juice (the meals at Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge were excellent and cooked with fresh, local foods). As the fireflies started flashing in the dark jungle around us we went to bed to the sound of the jungle; a chorus of screeching, hooting and grunting birds and animals.
The following morning we were up a 5:30 for breakfast and off with Eladio by canoe to watch green parrots land in a salt lick on the banks of the river while some spider monkeys swung from nearby trees. After a hour or so of watching we returned to the lodge for lunch and visited the women’s houses in the community surrounding the lodge where they danced for us and explained the Kichwa way of life. We danced with them and drank chicha tea (fermented yucca juice). After dinner we walked back to our cabin where I saw a group of tiny red tamarins peering at me from the trees behind our cabin (tamarins are monkey-like animals, something between a monkey and a squirrel)
After that we took another canoe ride and short hike to another salt lick in the jungle where macaws congregate. A group of red howler monkeys noisily crossed over the trail above us as we walked to the concrete viewing blind where we waited for a hour, entertaining ourselves by watching a green tree snake crawling up a nearby tree, before we heard the loud, raucous calls of scarlet macaws flying in through the jungle. Seven or eight of the brilliantly colored birds landed in the trees around us, but only one came in to take the salt from the small pool in front of us. Even so, the bright reds, blues and yellows of the bird were an amazing thing to see.
Our last day in the lodge, we would leave the following morning, but Eladio had a full day planned. I had asked for a long hike into the surrounding hills and Eladio obliged us. Again we were up by 5:30 for breakfast with Eladio, then a canoe ride to hike up to another viewing tower on a hill downriver. The jungle was shrouded in fog, but as it lifted we could see toucans and monkeys in the trees. As we walked down the tower we saw a group of Titi monkeys very close to us at the base of the tower and watched them for a while. After that; the hike I had requested.
We took the canoe to a nearby hillside and walked to an abandoned Kichwa settlement. An old, abandoned trail led from there into the surrounding hills. We hacked our way through fallen trees and vines finding the trail and climbing up steep, muddy hillsides to the ridge of the hill, seeing toucans and spider monkeys very close as we walked. Eladio pointed out medicinal plants and we ate handfuls of tiny lime ants that he showed us in a tree (yep, taste just like lime). We only walked 4 or 5 kilometers, but it was rough going up muddy hillsides and through the jungle. Finally we reached the river again and rode back to the lodge in the canoe, exhausted but glad we’d taken the hike.
After a late lunch we boarded the canoe once again, this time downriver to a tributary of coffe-colored water where caimans and pirañas live. Eladio paddle us up the small stream in a smaller canoe and we saw monkeys, parrots and the turkey-like hoatzin birds crossing over us within reach. Unfortunately the water was too high to see caimán and sting rays that inhabit the stream, but as we returned down the stream at dark we saw a caimán like iguana resting in the dark as flocks of bats flew around us.
We went to bed exhausted again knowing we had to leave in the morning. Eladio had been our constant comapnion and we’d become friendly with him. He told me about the interior of the Yasuni where so few humans go that jaguars lounge in the trees as you pass by in canoes and bears and monkeys lounge on the roofs of the huts there. He said there was a Kichwa community far up the Tipucini River (tributary of the Napo) where his brother worked at a university research center and I got Eladio’s contact information hoping to take a trip into the depths of the Yasuni in the future. He said he would be waiting for me.
The next day was travel day; back to Coca and then Quito and then on to Puerto Lopez on the Pacific coast. But Eladio had more planned for us before we left and woke us as agreed at 4:30 to meet with the community leader, Salverio Yunga, and his wife Maria. We entered their hut in the dark and quietly sipped chicha tea around an open fire with Maria until Silverio arrived. He asked us what we dreamnt about last night and interpreted our dreams. Then he told us about the decades-long struggle that he and a few others endured to get the Yasuni protected. This reminded me of my own environmental activism to get areas protected in the U.S. and it was fascinating to hear his stories. We thanked him, boarded the canoes, and took the 2-hour ride back to Coca.
The Yasuni had exceded our expectations and I hoped I could get back someday, and now I had a contact with Eladio. But for now it was time to move on – to the Pacific coast and Puerto Lopez where we were going to the nearby Isla de Plata (island of silver), called the “poor man’s Galapagos”, where humpback whales were breeding, giant manta rays swam, and blue-footed booby birds sit quietly as you walk by them.
PUERTO LOPEZ: From the Yasuni we flew out of Coca to the Quito airport to spend the night in a budget hotel, La Mercedes, where we had stored our other packs four days ago. The next morning early we flew to Manta, a rough n tumble fishing town on the coast, and then took a 1 ½ hour taxi ride south to Puerto Lopez (taxi $40).
The Lonely Planet guidebook says there is nothing to distinguish Puerto Lopez; a ramshackle fishing town with dusty streets. Pretty accurate discription. So, why go there? Well, Puerto Lopez is located within Machalilla National Park and offshore from Puerto Lopez is the Isla de Plata, a desert island with good diving and snorkeling and refuge for blue-footed booby birds, sea turtles, giant manta rays and humpback whales. And, since it was breeding season for the whales, we decided to go.
We arrived at our hotel, the Hotel Pacifico in downtown Puerto Lopez, and immediately thought we’d made a mistake coming here. The town was ramshackle as describd in the guidebook alright, but also under construction with the whole main street being repaved; dump trucks and construction workers kicking up clouds of dust and the whole town reeked of exhuast fumes. At $44/night the Hotel Pacifico was one of the more affordable mid-range options in Puerto Lopez; but it was basic with a large, sterile room with no charm to offset its utilitarianism except a small swimming pool and lounging area with hammocks behind the hotel. The side streets in town were mostly dirt with a fetid, open canal running through them. As we entered the hotel a cold drizzle started while a pair of black-faced vultures watched us from their perch on the lamp post in front of the hotel. We looked a each other and hoped the whales and the snorkeling would be worth the time we’d invested here.
We checked in to the hotel, booked a tour to Isla de Plata at the tour company next door for the following day for $35 each, and went to a local restaurant that served camalillo, the fish recommended by our airbnb host Bernardo in Quito. But the camalillo was bland and soft and we wondered how fish freshly caught from the ocean could be so tasteless. We left dissatisfied and were now giving up hope of finding good food in Ecuador.
The next day arrived cool, foggy and raining. We met our tour tour guide along with the rest of the tourists going on the trip (three Spanish women and a Spanish guy, two Germans, a Canadian woman and us). We boarded the 30’ launch that would be taking us the hour and a half ride (24 miles) across the ocean to the Isla de Plata. The boat reeked fo raw gasolina fumes and exhausat and it was a rough, wet ride but along the way we came close to a group of humpback whales that were surfacing nearby. On the island we hiked 3 or 4 kilometers through the dry tropical brush and nesting colonies of blue-footed booby birds that sat on their nests unafraid as we passed by.
Once back in the boat, a group of large, green sea turtles swam up to us accompanied by a school of bright blue and yellow fish. In the bay manta rays jumped from the water 15 or 20 feet into the air. We motored around to a point where we snorkeled for an hour amongst schools of brightly colored tropical fish and coral reefs.
Finally we set off on the return trip to Puerto Lopez, but the seas had risen and now fifteen foot high breakers rocked our small lunch violently. We stopped along the way to observe a mother and baby humpback whale playing near our boat, but by then Sonia and some of the guests were seasick, as much from the gasoline and exhaust fumes as from the rough seas, and I was coming down with “la touirsta” (diarhea) probably from the bad food we’d been eating. Back in Puerto Lopez we were all glad to reach shore; the ride back had been far rougher than the ride out.
We spent the next day in the hotel, relaxing the in the hammocks behind the pool and not daring to be more than quick running distance from a bathroom. But by the following morning we had recovered and hired a taxi for a half day ($25) to take us to the Playa de los Failes (the friar’s beach), a beach inside Machalilla National Park a few kilometers north of Puerto Lopez, and then to a small fishing town, Salango, a few kilometers south of Puerto Lopez. The Playa de los Frailes is supposedly one of Ecuadors nicest beaches and we spent the next three hours hiking through the nearly lifeless dry tropical brush to the unimpressive Playa Grande where I swam in the ocean before we met our taxi to continue on to Salango.
Salango is a small fishing town, but clean and fresh, and there is an island by the same name just a ½ mile offshore. We went to the Happy Dolphin restaurant recommended by our cab driver and had a fine meal of fresh squid in garlic sauce and fried fish (finally a decent meal). We walked around the village watching fishermen repair their nets and found that we could take a local boat out to the island where there is a beach and reef to snorkeling around. The next day was our last in Puerto Lopez, so we made plans to spend it in Salango and the nearby island instead of the noise and pollution of Puerto Lopez.
The following day Sonia didn’t want to risk getting seasick again, so I took a three hour poat tour to Slalango Island ($25) seeing two female humpback whales and a baby very close up, then snorkeled for a half hour over a reef outside of Puerto Lopez, and returned. Again the boat reeked of raw gasoline and exhaust fumes, but this time I found out why. A crew member opened the rear seat near the outboard motors to unclog a fuel line and I saw that the fuel supply was a series of open plastic jugs full of gasoline connected by a plastic tube. No wonder the boats reeked of fumes and now I realized how unsafe they were to boot.
We spent the rest of the day getting ready to leave, glad to go, and gratefully met our taxi at 9 am the next morning for the 1 ½ ride beck to Manta and our flight on to Quito where we had a ride arranged to Cotopaxi National Park. On the way we stopped at the fish market in Manta and the shipyard next door where wooden hulled trawlers and old yachts were being built or overhauled. A Norwegian family was rebuilding an ancient wooden motor-sailer there and the shipyard was fascinating. This was well worth the stop, probably the most interesting sight of our stay on the Ecuadorian coast.
We flew out of the tiny Manta airport to the Quito airport where we had aranged for a pickup by our next stop; the Cuello de Luna B&B near Cotopaxi National Park.
COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK: Cotopaxi is 19,000 foot high volcano southeast of Quito. It is the highest active volcano in the world and last erupted in 2015 spewing ash over th área we were now visiting. The área around it is an Ecuadorian national park.
Ishmeal, the manager of the Cuello de Luna B&B we had reserved near Cotopaxi National Park picked us up at the airport. He was an interested character; a Swiss expat and anthropogist as well as a mountain climbing guide. But when we arrived at the Cuello de Luna we found it to be a dreary collecdtion of rooms lined up along an alfalfa field within listening distance to the noisy Pan American Highway. Our room was small and smelled of wet firewood. Then it started raining. But, the dinner was good – at last a decent meal.
We discussed hiking in the park with Ishmael and found that transportaton to the park was very expensive, $100 or more to access hiking trails. And, the trails didn’t sound very interesting, with cows and agricultural fields surrounding them and guides required to hike into the high country at additional expense. It was becoming apparent that all the trekking areas in Ecuador were like this and I was becoming disillusioned with Ecuador altogether. But Sonia put on a happy face and we decided to make the best of the rest of the time we had scheduled in Ecuador, so we rented mountain bikes from the hotel the following morning, put on our cold weather gear, and under misty skies rode off down a route recommended by the hotel.
The route turned out to be a trash-lined dirt road through a depresssing agricultural village and past the area dump with stinking garbage trucks rumbling by. Still we rode on passing drunks stumbling down the muddy rural lane and mongrel dogs snapping at our legs until it started raining hard and we turned back. But Sonia’s bike foundered in a large mud puddle and she fell over into a cloudy soup of cow shit and cold water.
That was it. Once we cleaned up from the bike ride we cancelled our reservations for the rest of the time we had planned in Ecuador including the next two days at the Cuello de Luna. We lost money in non-refundable reservations, but we were simply unwilling to invest any more time in Ecuador. Instead we booked flights out of Quito to Bogota Colombia for the following day. We would spend a couple weeks in Colombia before continuing on to Cuzco Peru where we would meet our friend Victoria and take a tour to Machu Picchu. Ecuador just wasn’t working out for us, so time to move on.