Ecuador: North to South

After crossing the border with Colombia, I’ve been working my way down south and am now in Vilcabamba—a short five hours from Peru. Each and every one of these cities deserves its own post, but here’s a culmination of my time in Ecuador thus far:

IMG_3458 Otavalo: I went straight to Otavalo after crossing the border. While I knew this was the final destination that night, I was too concerned about the logistics to get there to plan any accommodation or activities in advance. It was a bit of a hot mess that evening as we missed our bus stop and had to run across the highway 30 minutes outside of the city to catch a difference bus in the opposite direction, but we eventually made it to the tiny Otavalo bus terminal. It was dark, I was tired so I marched over to the first hostel I saw and booked a room. (Never mind the reservation I had 20 minutes outside of the city on a retreat-like spot.) It ended up working out perfectly! I had planned the visit accordingly with the famous market. The big day is Saturday, but to avoid congestion and unwanted fellow tourists, I opted for the Wednesday market instead. I woke up the next morning at 7:30 a.m. and walked the five blocks where the vendors were busy setting up shop. You could say I definitely beat rush hour. I saw women in the midst of it all selling breakfast, so I walked over and took them up on their 0.75 cent bread and colada morada. (Side note: Colada morada is heaven on earth. It’s a typical drink for the Day of the Dead, hence the late October offering, made of black corn and fruits and served warm.) I perused the aisles slowly and sat to observe the hammock hanging, bracelet laying and IMG_3552alpaca scarf folding. While walking the town, I came across a celebration in the square—an anniversary for some educational initiative from what I could tell. Later that day, I ventured on a local bus to Quiroga and hopped on a taxi to get to Laguna Cuicocha. I made a deal with the driver to come back for me in four hours to take me back to the village of Quiroga—a commonly made arrangement as taxis don’t visit the park often. I started my 4-5 hour hike with a bag of Doritos, two oranges, Ritz crackers and a candy bar for my end reward. And let me tell you, it was incredible. The photos can (and can’t) do it justice. I did get lost and ended up hitching a rdie back to the park entrance, but all in all an incredible hike. Remember that deal I made with the taxi driver? He didn’t show. So I hitched yet another ride to Quiroga to catch the 0.35 cent bus back to Otavalo.

IMG_3647Quito: It was a quick and easy direct bus from Otavalo to Quito. I arranged to Couchsurf with David, and took a 10-minute taxi ride from the Northern bus station to his apartment. A first in my Couchsurfing experiences, he was hosting two others at the same time, so I met Alejandro who had the house key. We chatted (in my horrible, broken Spanish) and walked to the corner tienda for some pasta and veggies. Alejandro is from Mexico, traveling to travel and juggling at street lights to compensate for travel funds. He had also picked up the tiniest little dog, who he named Luna, from the street. After cooking, eating and resting, we decided to venture into the city—Luna in tow. We walked around, I chatted with a couple from Canada on vacation, and we got caught in a rainstorm before deciding to make the hour-long trek back to David’s apartment.

IMG_3724The next day, I jetted into the city with the other Couchsurfer, Kate from the U.K. She actually had a friend living in Quito, and graciously allowed me to butt in on their catching-up time. Along the way, I decided to choke up the $2 to go up the Cathedral of Quito for some stunning city sights. I also went to Mitad del Mundo during my short time in Quito, following directions from David. Although getting there consisted of the most confusing route and lots of questions due to me taking the backpacker route of true local transport, I made it. Honestly, a little disappointing, but hey—at least I got the cool pic. Since I’m flying out of here in mid-December, I didn’t want to do it all and have a list of to-dos for when I return.

IMG_3814Banos: Banos turned out to be a difference experience than I initially opted for, but it proved to be a city of adventures. I spent nearly a week there partaking in a Workaway (volunteer in exchange for room and board) for an adventure tour company. I arrived at the job site and was immediately told I’d be going on a one-night camping trip, so I quickly packed my bag for the most unexpected of trips. The tour was essentially for a German girl and her mother on vacation, but I was tagging along for the ride. We drove three hours from Banos to El Altar, near Chimborazo and started our hike. We set up camp in the middle of two ridges and gathered firewood. Thank goodness for the extra clothing and gear because we woke up to ice on the outside of the tent, a good indication of the amount of sleep I got that night. The next morning, we continued on to the top of the ridge to see a host of lakes and get a better view of the snowcapped Chimborazo.

Returning to Banos for the next few days, I helped translate a few documents and marketing materials for the tour company. One morning, the owner and I were on a leisurely walk with smoothies from the local market when he noticed his friends setting up equipment for bridge jumping. Before I knew it, I had the harness on and was standing on the edge of the platform. I was petrified. This was the one single activity I said I would never, ever do. Skydiving? Yes. Rafting? Sure. Bungee jumping? Heck no. IMG_0004There was a lot of “no, no, no” and some sitting on the edge, but eventually he pushed me off and I was screaming like a little girl as I fell 50 ft. into the abyss. A moment I’m so grateful for—teaching me a little lesson that I oh, so needed. IMG_0015That same day, I used one of the bikes from the shop to ride the Ruta de las Cascadas—a 17 km (10 mile) straight shot with a dozen waterfalls in sight. The route was straightforward, thank goodness, and was definitely known among locals as a bike-heavy pathway. I ended up going one waterfall too far, but backtracked to visit El Diabolo. At this last stop, you could pay $1 to visit this force of nature up close and personal. While most, if not all, bikers pay the $2 to hitch a ride back to Banos, I decided to bike back. Whether it was the past-cyclist in me or the determination that I could do it, I struggled my way back into Banos before the rain hit.

My time was cut way short, but with the time I would have definitely done some canyoning, rafting, visited the oh so touristy Case de el Arbol and so much more. I’ll just save these extreme sports for another hot and heavy adventure city.

IMG_3901Cuenca: An eight-hour ride from Banos, Cuenca is Ecuador’s Europoean, expat headquarters. It has the charm of an Italian village with the population to match. I booked three nights at Bauhouse Hostel, located in the heart of it all, and spent my time simply walking and enjoying the city’s ambiance. Known for its museums and proximity to Cajas National Park, Cuenca offered some sort of comfort for me. Although I wasn’t necessarily a fan of hearing English on every street corner, it was interesting to see how retired Americans and Europeans could make a life in South America. I visited my fair share of cafes and read on the bank of the Rio Tonebamba. I found a bookstore, run by a American couple from Illinois, where I traded my $1 Atonement for a bilingual book of short stories for some Spanish motivation. People say that Cuenca can’t be missed during a tour of Ecuador and I couldn’t agree more.

IMG_3922Vilcabamba: This was a total spur of the moment decision. Bauhouse Hostel in Cuenca had tons of flyers for Hosteria Izhcayluma. They had yoga. They had massages. They had hammocks. Sold. I booked three nights online and hopped on the direct bus at 1:30 p.m from a nearby hostel in Cuenca. A short five hours later we arrived at paradise. This retreat/resort/haven featured a pool, free yoga at 8 a.m., a great restaurant with live entertainment and pure relaxation. Just what I needed to reevaluate, de-stress and simply think. All this for a 6-person dorm at $8.50. After talking to the other backpackers from Germany, Austria, France, Australia and the States, this was definitely a gateway to Peru due to its extremely southern location. But for me, it was a place to take a hot minute to breathe and do absolutely nothing for a change.

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