Sure, we enjoyed our time in the Galapagos Islands. It’s difficult not to when you are surrounded by blue-footed boobies dancing their way to marriage and penguins torpedoing their way through the water.
But when travelers fly in and out of Ecuador only to see the Galapagos, they are missing out.
We’ve had the benefit of visits to Peru and Bolivia to help us put Ecuador into Andean perspective. Ecuador's animal market culture and aesthetic diversity surprised us. As we continue to reflect on our travels through South America, a few experiences in Ecuador – some conventional, some not – stand out.
1. Quito: Blue Skies and Beautiful Croissants
We thought we knew what a blue sky was supposed to look like. Then we arrived in Quito. At 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) in elevation, it's just a bit closer to the sky than most capital cities. Walk around Quito's old town and you'll feel it — not only because of the slight shortness of breath you might experience, but also because of the inimitable cloud-popping blue sky overhead. It's so surreal that you sometimes feel you can reach up and touch it — if only you could stretch just a little bit more.
Throw in a few parks, dramatic staircases, and a few of Quito's impressive colonial churches like San Francisco Church below, and you've got yourself a visual that you just might never forget.
The altitude certainly helped, but were the skies really that clear?
Perhaps the thin air had affected our judgment. Or maybe we’d spent too long in the smoggy lowlands of Central American cities like Managua, Nicaragua where even the dimmest of blue skies barely existed.
But it wasn’t just in our heads. And no, that sky is not photoshopped.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Quito is also home to some of the best value pains au chocolat (chocolate croissants) in the Americas — huge, flaky, buttery, generously stuffed, and chip cheap at $0.50 a pop. While the croissants at Spicy Café (Amazonas Ave. & Roca) may not be able to compete with those in Paris’ finest patisseries, they were edible gold to us — two travelers having just spent four months eating tortillas and dry bread in Central America.
2. Otavalo: Window-shopping for carpets and cuyes (guinea pigs).
Imagine our disappointment arriving before dawn at Otavalo's Saturday animal market only to find out that a local quarantine meant no llamas or other livestock would be sold that day.
Our letdown was mitigated by the enthusiasm of the cuy vendors and buyers. Cuyes of all sizes – from babies to those plump enough to be served as that evening's feast – filled the air with their squeaks. Prospective buyers looked closely, hoping to find faults and negotiate a lower price, but indignant vendors fought back, rebuffing the criticism and pretending they didn't need the business. At the universal sport of bargaining, the Ecuadorans are tough.
Otavalo's main event, however, is the handicrafts market surrounding the Plaza de Ponchos. Even though we don't often buy souvenirs, we enjoyed being engulfed in the colorful sea of handwoven carpets and wall hangings.
Note: The market can be overwhelming. To refresh your eyes and regain your sanity, consider escaping to Shenandoah Pie Company on the square for a beautiful piece of homemade pie. Ask the owner about her thirty years of pie-baking experience.
3. Quilotoa Loop: Brush up on your fatalism. Hang out with llama vendors.
If you are planning to travel overland through the Andes, there may be no better place to begin your “fatalism training” than the Quilotoa Loop.
“What is fatalism training?” you might ask.
Why, it’s overcoming the fear of falling off a cliff on a rickety bus by telling yourself: “If it’s going to happen, it's going to happen quickly.”
The buses – some with sheep strapped on top, others with chicken boxes lashed to luggage racks – circle the Quilotoa Loop, a group of villages that ring Laguna Quilotoa, a volcanic crater lake. Although the buses’ departure times are often inhumane (think 3:00-5:00 A.M), the views and experiences they afford make it all worth the effort.
Hiking the Quilotoa Crater
When our alarm went off at 4:00 A.M., I cursed it and was tempted to roll over. But I knew if I had, I'd regret it. I had a volcanic lake to visit.
After a bumpy chicken bus ride, we finally arrived at the lake's edge. The sun was just coming up and we were among the very few people there.
Note: If you are staying in Chugchilan (we enjoyed Cloud Forest Hostel), consider hiking back from Quilotoa Lake. The route is not very well marked as local guides conveniently pull out trail signs to create demand for their guide services. It still remains doable on your own without a guide. Ask your guest house to draw you a map and keep asking locals you meet along the way to be sure you are headed in the right direction.
Weekly Indigenous Market along the Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop is also known for its weekly indigenous markets, with the Saquisili Thursday market being perhaps the most famous or frequented by travelers.
This small town grows exponentially in size on Thursdays, its weekly market day. In the wee hours of the morning, people from nearby mountain villages pour into town, poised to buy, sell, and trade everything from huge, squealing pigs to baby guinea pigs to piles of tree tomatoes.
For the Saquisili Thursday market, spend the night before in town so you're ready to catch the early morning market action before the buses from nearby towns begin to descend. We rose at 5:30 AM to catch the early morning trading scene at the animal market on the town's edge. The atmosphere is surprisingly intense, featuring expressive, heated bargaining, particularly between indigenous women.
Although Saquisili gets the mention in guidebooks for having the best weekly indigenous market along the Quilotoa Loop, our preference goes to smaller Zumbahua on the other side. The benefit of being deposited in Zumbahua on Saturday at a dark, frigid 5 AM? You get to see animals being taken to market: unruly goats here, squealing pigs there, docile sheep aligned in rows.
Then, of course, you have the iconic llama — and its iconic owner. We hung out with this woman as she turned down offers left and right for her two beauties. We believe that secretly she didn’t want to sell them.
4. Puerto Lopez: Whales up close.
Having spent a year at graduate school in Monterey, California, I associate whale watching trips with, “I’m going to spend a lot of money for a 10% chance to see a whale.”
Not so off the coast of Ecuador at Puerto Lopez.
If you time your visit right (June – September), you can spend $20 and be surrounded by a party of humpback whales jumping around your boat. It’s not uncommon to see whale families swimming together, with whale babies doing aerial gymnastics.
5. Cuenca: Milk a goat at the market.
Goat milk doesn’t get any fresher than straight from the doe. At Cuenca’s main market, Feria Libre, that’s how it’s served. Watch as your serving is fresh-squeezed right before your eyes.
We had been told – many times in Ecuador in fact – that unpasteurized goat milk helps boost the immune and respiratory systems, making it a natural remedy for asthma, swine flu and other respiratory ailments.
Although we weren’t quite thirsty enough to try a glass straight from the source, we did try it in a cappuccino served at a creative little café in the northern Ecuadoran city of Ibarra.
It tasted OK, but I'll take my goat milk in the form of cheese next time, thank you.
6. Rural southern Ecuador: Challenge a group of indigenous women to a soccer match.
When we are on a photo shoot, we usually attempt to capture every moment. So when a group of women from a Kiva microfinance savings group invited us to their village and began a game of pick-up soccer (football), we were tempted to follow our usual form by taking photos.
Instead, we decided it was time to put down the cameras and join in.
The women — despite their less-than-athletic shoes and the burden of babies strapped to their backs – were impressive on the football pitch. Surprisingly fit and unsurprisingly accustomed to the altitude, they ran circles around us gringos.
Best of all: their smiles and laughter. It was as if the women had become kids again and had, at least for the moment, let go of life’s worries.
Travel Details: Accommodation, Food, Transport and Activities in Ecuador
- Accommodation: Casa Kanela is located in the Mariscal area of Quito, but is on a quiet side street so it doesn't feel like you're in the middle of bar and restaurant mayhem. $25 for a double room (shared bath), including breakfast. Free wifi internet. Address: Juan Rodriguez E8-46
- Restaurants: The Mariscal area of Quito has endless choices for international restaurants. Our favorites include: El Maple vegetarian restaurant (Joaquin Pinto and Diego de Almagro) for great three-course lunches ($4) and tasty pasta dishes, Uncle Ho's (Jose Calama and Diego de Almagro) for an Asian food fix (also with a bargain lunch menu), and Al Forno (Diego de Almagro and Baquerizo Moreno) for thin crust, wood fired pizza with every topping you can imagine. Our best market food experience was a fistful of sea bass (corvina) and bowl of ceviche big enough for two ($3) at Don Jimmy's at Mercado Central (Central Market).
- Accommodation: About four kilometers outside Otavalo in the hills is La Luna. It's a great starting point for hikes and to relax. Good fixed menus for dinner ($6-7 for three-course meal) and friendly dogs. Rooms run about $18 for a double room with shared bathroom.(2009 prices)
- Accommodation: In Saquisili, we stayed at San Carlos Hotel on the main square. A double room with a great view of the square and ensuite bathroom was $10. In Chugchilan, we stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest just outside the town. The staff did a great job managing large groups of travelers and were great with providing information on buses and hiking. Half board including a double room (en suite bathroom), breakfast and dinner is $10 per person.
- Transport: Buses are infrequent and often leave early, so be prepared to rise in the wee hours of the morning. Ask at your hotel for the latest times. From our experience, the bus from Saquisili to Chugchilan leaves at 11:30 on Thursdays (market day), Chugchilan to Laguna Quilatoa leaves at around 4-6 AM, and Chugchilan to Zumbahua departs at the ungodly hour of 3 AM on Saturdays.
- Accommodation: After getting about 200 bed bug bites between the two of us in three days at a simple pension in someone's home, we went running to Hostal Macondo. Don't worry, we sent everything to the laundromat before checking in. With a pleasant courtyard, clean rooms and good breakfast, this place was worth stretching our budget. $23 for a double room with shared bath. Wifi internet struggles in the foyer, but it works eventually if you hold a vigil.
- Where to Eat: Chicago Pizza (Gran Columbia across from Santo Domingo Church) serves up good pizza by the slice. We also ended many a meal with ice cream at Tutto Freddo on the main square.
Vilcabamba – not included above, but worth a visit
- Accommodation: We booked for three days at Le Rendez-Vous Guesthouse in Vilcabamba and reluctantly pulled ourselves away after a week. Each room has its own little patio with a hammock and chairs facing a garden courtyard and view of the surrounding mountains. Breakfast includes homemade bread, eggs, fresh fruit and strong coffee. $25 for a double room with ensuite bathroom (2009 prices), $4/day for wifi internet. A lovely place to relax and write.
- Where to eat: Because of the influx of foreigners to Vilcabamba (we wrote about that in another post), there's a lot of international food choices in this small town. Our favorites included fajitas at La Terraza (on main square), trout at Shanta's Bar (or, go for cuy/guinea pig), or Mexican fare at Sambuca on the main square.