Quito and the Central Sierra
After going to Peru in 2013 we skipped South America for a few years, but eventually realized how much we missed the Andes Mountains. Shorter flights, cheaper flights and no jet lag. After much research we decided on Ecuador and on August 29, 2017 we flew we flew into the new airport north of the city, got welcomed by a smiling customs officer who wished us a great vacation and got a van to our hotel in the Casco Historico, a UNESCO heritage site.
The first few days were spent in Quito acclimating to the 9200 foot altitude and exploring. Iglesia del Merced, Plaza Grande and Plaza San Francisco. Centro Cultural had a great LGBT photo exhibition and J wrote her proclamation on the Women’s Empowerment Wall. We walked up to the Basilica del Voto Nacional and climbed the many stairs and ladders to the top for a great view of the city. Stopped in a bookstore on the way back and talked to the owner who was from the UK.
On Thursday we took a taxi to the TeleferiQo, a cable car up the slopes of Volcan Pichincha to about elevation 13,293′. We rode up with a group of 4 young people in their twenties: a guy from Switzerland, a woman from Munich, a woman from Poland and a woman from Belgium. They all knew each other from Spanish school and we all talked together in English. The views were great, but it was a little cold and windy. Its a short hike to the volcano summit, but we were warned of robberies so decided to skip it.
After lunch we checked out the Museum de la Ciudad, which was excellent and took a taxi up to Legarda’s Virgin. The taxi driver took off on us and no others were around so we hopped on a bus (25 cents for both of us) which took us back down the hill and let us off who knows where. Luckily we had a map and eventually found our way back.
On Friday we got a taxi to the bus station (terminal terrestre) for the 3 hour ride to Latacunga. It was our first experience with the Ecuador bus system, which is absolutely fantastic. (see Getting About) On Saturday on our guide from Julio Verne Travel, Eddie met us at the Hotel Endamo and we hiked from Sigchos to Isinlivi. We arrived at the front door of a non-descript hostel named Lulu Llama, which upon entering turned out to be the most fantastic place we had ever stayed. The main building was gorgeous, the grounds were amazing, the bathroom had a window for a ceiling and a fireplace in the bedroom. We ate family style with a group of other trekkers – all young people in their twenties: a Dutch woman hiking alone, 2 Swiss women, a guy from Denver and a few others two far down the table to talk to. They all seemed to be without guides; the Dutch woman had just come from The Galapagos. After dinner most got up and left, but the 2 Swiss women came over and sat next to us and we talked for quite a while. It was unlike our recent experiences with people in the US who are glued to their cell phones and avoid eye contact. These young women actually sought us out for conversation – maybe it is the bond of the traveler.
The second day we hiked to a little shelter with great views and ate lunch. Many little kids were around. We talked with Monica who looked to be about 5 years old but it turned out she was in fifth grade. In the afternoon we hiked to Chugchilan to Hostal Mama Hilda. After dinner Eddie managed to get a truck to take us up to where we could view the cloud forest.
On Monday we headed for Lake Quilotoa. We passed fields of lupines. It was a short hike, about 7 miles but all uphill to about elevation 13,000′. J was suffering with elevation sickness; we offered to carry her but she struggled on 10 feet at a time. Eddie had us cover our eyes and lead us to the edge of the crater where we opened them to the spectacular view of Lake Quilotoa. Had some oregano tea at the little village (for the sickness) and then drove back to Latacunga, stopping along the way for a picture of Volcan Cotopaxi (19,342′).
Hidden Valleys Bike Ride
On Tuesday we got on the bus to Ambato and then switched to another to Riobamba. Checked in at Casa 1881, wandrered a bit, J ate some pizza and was sick again. Went to El Delerio for dinner -fried sea bass and trout. On Wednesday morning our guides from Julio Verne, Demetri and Alfredo picked us up for the ride to Chimborazo Reserve, the start of the bike ride. The park was closed due to Vicuna shearing which they said only happens once a year, so we had to skip the hike to Whymper Refuge and the first 5 miles of the bike trip. Nevertheless it was an excellent trip, all downhill which is J’s favorite way of riding. Unfortunately we were put with a couple from the Netherlands who wouldn’t let go of their brakes. We made a couple of breakaways but the guides quickly reeled us back in.
- Trek Length – 28.8 miles
- Trek Duration – 4 days
On Thursday the folks from Julio Verne picked us up for the 4 day trek. Luis was the guide, his assistant, Leonardo was a local Quichua and our driver, Moses. The first day we trekked about 7 miles, the weather was sunny and the views were spectacular. We had our first sightings of polylepsis trees, valerian and bromeliads. Along with great views of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo volcanoes. Leonardo’s daughter, Vanessa and sister in law, Ingma had arrived at the camp before us and had everything set up. Leonardo and Ingma were both shy, but Vanessa, only 15, was extremely sociable as well as hard working.
On Friday we crossed a pass at 14,000 feet before descending to camp at the foot of Carihuairazo. We saw cara-cara, a type of falcon, and covered about 6 miles.
On Saturday we hiked around the south flank of Carihuairazo to a refuge. It was raining in the morning but stopped midday and we were able to take off the rain boots. Saw lots of vicuna and volcano views. We were the only ones staying at the refuge for the night. We read outside. Aba and daughter came to cook for us, but didn’t eat with us.
Sunday morning Luis admitted they were low on food, having only eggs and bread and a little jelly left and knowing I didn’t eat eggs. So we taught them how to make french toast and ate it with jelly. We told them it was typically served with maple syrup, but Luis said that was prohibitively expensive in Ecuador. The day started cloudy so we skipped the hike up to the glacier and headed for the road. It was about 6 miles and mostly downhill. Luis taught us the burning spear head (tungurahua)and hummingbird (coilibri).
On Monday after another great breakfast at Casa 1881 we hopped on a bus for the 2 hour ride to Banos for relaxation time. Banos is a small town along the Rio Pastaza and only about 5 miles from Volcan Tungurahua. The volcano became active again in 1999 after being dormant for 80 years. The entire town was evacuated and 20,000 people were left homeless. Eventually, the people, afraid that their homes were being looted, fought their way back through the military blockade. There is a great account of this in Tim Cahill’s story “Powder Keg” in his book Hold the Enlightenment. Our guide, Luis was from Banos; he was one of those evacuated and confirmed the details to us.
People still flock to high points to watch the lava spew out at night (it was cloudy the night we were there) and signs like this are found in the lobby and stairwells of our hotel.
We walked the short distance to our hotel, Posada J, right near the waterfall and baths. Luis was had recommended a hike called “Los Sauces.” His directions were vague (go across the San Francisco Bridge and follow the footpath to the next bridge) the cartoonish tourist map useless. But we had done a fair amount of hiking and it was only 5 miles round trip, so what could go wrong? We would just follow the signs. We found the dirt path and could see the bridge in the distance but the trail forked at several locations. And there were no signs. A white pick up truck passed us several times and seemed to be following us and it was getting dark so we turned back. We were discussing contingency escape plans when we passed another pick up parked on the side of the road and suddenly heard huge crashing noises. We stopped just in time as several huge bamboo logs came rolling down the hill just in front of us.
The next day we rented bikes to ride the Ruta de las Cascadas, the most popular biking trail in Banos. It was very straightforward transaction: you pick the “good” bike or “better” bike and hand them $20.00. They hand you a bike, a helmet and a pump. Nothing to sign, no waivers of liability. The first mile or two were along a major state highway with minimal shoulders and truck roaring past. Eventually the traffic tapered off and then there only the tunnels to deal with. The bike trail then diverged from the main road and was only open to bikes and pedestrians. Its mostly downhill to the village of Rio Verde past (and through!) many gorgeous waterfalls. There you can flag down a truck and get a ride back.
Went across the street to the restaurant owned by the trout guy that had been helpful to us the day before. He was not around, but suddenly a man appeared at our table. Recognizing us as gringos, he announced he was from Illinois and then proceeded to free associate about Bar Harbor, an arborist friend, setting his motorcycle down 9 times, shopping in Manhattan, being a retired history teacher, his grandfather a confederate. It made no sense, we listened alternately fascinated and bored and were glad when he left.
Wednesday was our last day. We took a taxi up to La Casa del Arbol, a place with giant swings on the edge of a cliff. We decided to walk downhill to the Cafe de Cielo for lunch. It didn’t come as soon as we thought, so we asked a native if we were on the right road. He nodded and pointed straight ahead. We continued until the fork forked. Again, no signs. We continued on what we thought was the correct path. We came out to a road with some buildings and hailed some people. They really had no idea either. We kept following the road, eventually it turned into a dirt track and then a drainage ditch. But it was marked by blue ribbons so it must lead somewhere. By now it was well past noon and we had 2:00 PM massage appointments. Every now and then we’d climb out of the drainage channel to gaze over the fields in hopes of seeing Cafe de Cielo. Finally we had to admit defeat, made our way to the road and sat with a bunch of locals waiting for the next bus. One them was extremely drunk; he stumbled trying to get up the bus steps and I grabbed him and between his wife and I, we got him on board.
Thursday was epic bus ride day back to Quito. We had come down in sections, and now faced one long ride. It was a 4 hour bus ride to the terminal terrestre at the south end of Quito and then another 2 hour bus ride through to streets of Quito to the airport north of town.
Getting around by bus is simple and cheap. All buses have a driver and conductor. The driver drives and the conductor takes care of everything else-boarding, deboarding, tickets etc. All you have to do is tell the conductor where you want to get off and he makes sure the bus stops there. The bus stations can be intimidating, with all the choices of buses and stops. At first we bought tickets ahead of time. Once when we tried to buy a ticket for the next day, the seller looked at us like we were crazy. Eventually we discovered that you don’t even need to go to a bus station-the bus will stop anywhere to pick up or discharge passengers. But you take the chance that its full and goes right by.
Some have bathrooms, some don’t. Most discourage male passengers from using the bathrooms because the swaying motion of the bus causes aiming inaccuracies.
We had made our way from Quito down to Riobamba and then up to Banos by bus in short increments. However this lead to an epic ride home. The bus trip back to Quito was a 4.5 hour ride, and since the bus terminal is at the southern tip of Quito and the airport to the north, there was an additional 1.5 hour bus ride through city streets at rush hour.