We were pleased by how rapidly the beige desert gave way to lush green vegetation (mostly banana trees) as we crossed the border from Peru into Ecuador. We also immediately appreciated the cleanliness of Ecuador. A stark contrast to the wretched roadside garbage piles of northern Peru.
We wasted no time climbing up from the coast into the Andes once again. We have often marvelled at how much change we can witness in one day of driving. It’s not unusual for us to be sweating in our tank tops and shorts in the morning, and then digging out the sweaters and extra blankets in the evening.
Given that we are on an overland adventure, in a large V8 powered van, it cannot be understated how much we appreciated the price of gasoline in Ecuador. It didn’t really dawn on us until we drove away from our first gas station and we noticed that our full tank cost only $30! Thank you Ecuador.
The first stop on our Ecuadorian itinerary was the city of Cuenca. Honestly, we had never even heard of Cuenca before we started talking to other overlanders in northern Peru. But were not sure why. It’s a delightful colonial city, with plenty to see and do. It was also noticeably populated with American ex-pats. So much so that they have their own English newspaper; The Gringo Times, and website!
The number one tourist attraction in Cuenca might be the Panama Hat factories. Yes, it confused us too. We quickly learnt however that authentic Panama Hats are actually from Ecuador, and the majority of the domestic production comes from the city of Cuenca. In the late 19th century these hats began to grow in popularity and started to be exported, like many goods, from the ports of Panama. Somehow, the name Panama Hat stuck. However the proper name for them would be Sombrero Carludovica, because of the type of palm fibre used to make them comes from the Carludovica tree (aka. panama hat plant). Regardless of their name, they are a damn cool hat. Depending on the intricacy of the weaving, these hats can fetch anywhere from $30 to $3,000 dollars! The shop workers provided an informative and interactive explanation of the process, and a free coffee with a hat purchase! We may have bought one, or two, or three…
Cuenca also impressed us with its high quality (and free) anthropological museum, which included a macabre exhibit on shrunken heads from the Amazonian tribes! The mouths of the heads are sewn shut to keep the spirits from escaping to haunt the owner of the trophy.
On the streets of Cuenca we were also introduced to our first “menu del dia”, or menu of the day. Most local restaurants in Ecuador will serve a set meal for lunch which includes a soup, a main, and drink for a low price. How low? Like, $2.50 low.
From Cuenca it was only a short drive up the nearest mountain to Laguna Llaviucu. We did a quick hike around the lake and spent one night camped in the parking lot. This excursion was also a test of El Condor’s wounded auxiliary batteries. It was their first night sustaining our refrigerator without external power since they died in Northern Peru. Thankfully, it was a non-issue.
A little higher up the mountains we found some more incredible hiking in Parque Nacional Cajas. The trails were well marked and the vistas were spectacular!
We had heard great things about the southern coast of Ecuador so once again we dropped back down to sea level and skirted around the huge coastal city of Guayaquil. We had visited Guayaquil on our way to the Galápagos Islands during our previous visit to Ecuador in 2009, so we didn’t mind driving right around it this time. Instead, we found our way to the tiny coastal town of Ballenita and the impossibly quaint hotel called Farallon Dillon.
This hotel has been the hobby of Captain Dillon and his amazing wife Yolanda since his retirement as a cargo ship captain decades ago. They have lovingly amassed an astounding array of nautical relics and knick knacks that provide so much character to the the rooms and grounds. Especially the old chapel, which has been converted to a nautical museum / art gallery.
The star attraction for us however was the cliffside swimming pool with an unbeatable view. The kids spent most daylight hours splashing and learning to snorkel while we found some precious time for yoga and exercise on the patio. We also took advantage of the restaurant for one night of fine dinning on Mahi Mahi and Bananas Flambé.
We reluctantly pulled up our anchor and cruised up the coast to a well known overlander campground called Jardin Swisso in the town of Puerto Cayo. Here we met Sam, another retired sailor, who in addition to running a comfortable campsite near the beach, has been carefully curating his massive tropical garden for nearly 20 years.
Here we met some new friends, Cami and Leo (Viajeros Utópicos) with whom we were lucky to celebrate Leo’s birthday. We were also happy to catch up with some old overlanding friends, Steve and Gabe (Traveling Terrills), who were volunteering at a dog rescue operation just up the street.
We had our last swim and said goodbye to the ocean once again. We would not be seeing it again until we reached the Caribbean! We pushed El Condor back up the Andes to reach the dormant volcano crater of Laguna Del Quilotoa. Despite attempting a one night acclimatization stop along the way, its 4000m altitude left us feeling unwell. Thankfully the view was well worth it.
We happily dropped back down into Ecuador’s central valleys and set up a new base in the town of Baños. We were welcomed warmly by Umberto and his family into the courtyard of their hotel and restaurant Cedro. The kids got a kick out of feeding the giant “pet” trout in their pond.
Baños offers a plethora of tourist attractions. Firstly, the town itself is a well kept colonial gem, nestled in a lush tropical valley beneath waterfalls and hot springs. If that was not sweet enough, the local specialty is fresh pulled taffy which is sold from every street corner!
The deep valley to the west of town hordes innumerable waterfalls, including Cascada Agoyan, Ecuador’s tallest. Rob and Averie were excited to ride the cable car across the valley for a closer view. MJ and Liam came along reluctantly. Everyone agreed that it was a spectacular way to view such an amazing waterfall.
Only a short drive up the valley, and past countless other waterfalls, cable cars, and zip lines, we found the entrance to Pailon Del Diablo (The Devils Cauldron). After a short hike down into the tropical rain forest we reached the viewpoint directly below the path of the massive falls. We wished somebody had told us to bring rain jackets! From there we clambered through some awkward caves directly behind the top of the falls. The sensation of the power of the water was palpable.
Another famous local attraction are the giant swings that are set up all over the valley. These adult-sized playground toys are positioned to swing you out over the sides of the valleys, providing cheep thrills and memorable views. We visited the “original” swings at the Casa Del Arbol (the Tree House), high up on the side of Volcan Tunguragua.
After Baños, we only had a short drive North to reach Parque National Cotopaxi. Once again, we included an acclimatization stop on the outskirts of the park before venturing into the higher altitude. The majority of the time the volcanic peak of Cotopaxi remained hidden behind clouds, so we bided our time drinking delicious authentic hot chocolate and hiking around a lagoon. Once the park emptied and we had settled into our campsite, the clouds parted and revealed the amazing snow flanked portrait of the famous 6000m peak.
It was now time to head to Quito to meet Rob’s brother Pete. We were all thrilled to have Uncle Pete join us, especially the kids. He was just beginning a 3-month vacation and we convinced him to join us for a quick trip into the Amazon before he flew to the Galápagos Islands for some scuba diving. First, we took a few days to relax at Aries Campground and visit the capital city. We had spent a couple of days exploring Quito when we were Ecuador back in 2009 but we were not opposed to exploring the Basilica del Voto Nacional again. Arie, a former Dutch Marine, provided amazing hospitality and transportation services. Not to mention some seriously delicious pizza at his family’s restaurant in the suburb of Tumbaco.
It would be more than one day drive to the Amazon from Quito, so we stopped for a night at Cascada San Rafael. It was raining hard and low clouds clogged the valley as we hiked to the view point so we almost didn’t get to see the falls but, just in time, the fog cleared to reveal the breathtaking view.
On the recommendation of our fellow French-Canadian overlanders Yanick and Stephanie (lestrotteuxdamerique.com), we had arranged a 3-day visit with the Shayari, a small Amazonian community. We were looking forward to seeing the Amazon from the perspective of a local community, rather than a posh tourist lodge. To be honest, we also could not fathom the $600 to $700 per person cost that these luxury lodges were quoting.
The Shayari had arranged for us to meet our guide, and community Patriarch, Guillermo in the town of Lombaqui along with an English interpreter, Francisco. After a rough drive on small jungle tracks we reached the Shayari village, where we parked and walked to the lodge. The location was spectacular, and the constant thrum of birds, monkeys, and insects reminded us that we were indeed in the actual Amazon jungle!
Our itinerary included a couple of informative jungle hikes, paddling in a lagoon, some hands-on crafting, and an indigenous dance show. The meals were authentic and hearty. Always starting with a soup followed by a second course of chicken or fish with rice or yuca, a type of stringy root vegetable.
During the jungle walks we were careful to TOUCH NOTHING. Not an easy task for a 5 and 7 year old. There are an untold number of flora or fauna that can cause a human grief in the Amazon. While we did not stumble upon any panthers or pythons, we did see an abundance of large, intimidating insects and spiders. The columns of carpenter ants, carrying their large green loads, were especially entertaining. We were also thrilled to see a group Woolley Monkeys up close, although we were warned to keep the kids safely behind us.
The most entertaining display was Guillermo’s demonstration of indigenous hunting techniques. Including several authentic animal traps consisting of ever more elaborate schemes of falling logs and spring loaded lassos. Just like in the movies! We were all clambering to try the blow dart gun.
Unfortunately the Cayman were all hiding from the sun during our afternoon canoe trip. Instead, many amazing bird species proudly displayed themselves around the shores as though they were each waiting in turn to be admired.
We returned to the city extremely happy with our Amazon experience. We settled back into Aries yard and set about cleaning and preforming routine maintenance on our van-home. With some help from Arie, Rob managed to track down the right synthetic oil, got a wash, and even had the wheel alignment checked. El Condor was ready to take on Colombia.
We also found a spare day to visit the equator monuments / museums just north of Quito. There are actually several to choose from and not all of them agree on the exact location of the 0d latitude. Although, really they are probably all right because the true line of the equator drifts along with the axis of the Earth’s spin during the year. Regardless, we had fun with some pictures and learnt a bunch at the museums.
After saying our goodbyes to Arie, and making plans to meet Uncle Pete in a few weeks in Colombia, we set off Northwards towards Otovalo. This city is famous for its outdoor market, unfortunately we would not be visiting it on a weekend when it grows significantly to include a large animal market. Regardless, we did walk away with a few choice items.
Our final stop in Ecuador was the Sommer Wind campground in the city of Ibarra. Here we were excited to stumble on another van with Alberta plates! It’s Calgarian owner had been there for weeks waiting for a new cooling fan to be delivered. Unbelievably, we were soon joined by a motorcyclist from Edmonton! It was a small comfort to be surrounded, even for a short time, by some Canadian neighbors. It was a reminder that, despite the long distances we drive, it’s a small world in the end.
We had grown fond of Ecuador. Seduced by its friendly people, quality highways, and cheap gasoline. But especially by its amazing diversity of ecosystems. In just four short weeks we had explored historic colonial cities, beautiful pacific beaches, high mountain lakes, lush tropical valleys, breathtaking volcanic vistas, and Amazonian jungle! We knew it would be hard to top that, but we had high hopes for what was coming next. Colombia.
To see more of our adventure in Ecuador check out these links.