Sunday, 27 April 2014

Ecuador, the land of ice and fire ... and of many clouds

Hi everyone!

We hope you are all doing well! After some long driving days we are currently installed in Trujillo, Peru and therefor take the opportunity to inform you a bit on our experience in Ecuador. We must be honest, we kind of went fast here, spending only 11 days, as we want to have as much time as possible for Peru and Bolivia before going to Brazil. Looking at it afterwards, we don't regret this decision. Sure it was fast, but by driving ourselves we are able to do a lot (again we covered 2300 km in ten driving days - not bad if you get to know the very steep Andes in Ecuador)

So anyhow, we crossed into the country via Tulcan, a village where there is not much to see, especially when we arrived there after seven in the evening. We therefor decided to go to a cheap hotel for the night. Obviously we needed a cheap place and we also had to be able to park the car safely. We ended up in a hotel which charged us per 12 hours - instead of per 24 hours - you can already imagine which kind of hotel this was... From here we went direction the Otavalo market, a highly recommended market to visit on Saturdays where you can find practically everything. This was really a nice and fun experience. The market itself was gigantic and there appeared to be more people selling stuff than people buying things. Apart from textiles and food we could also have a look at the animal market, where they sell cows, pigs, chicken and cavias together with a variety of other animals.

After visiting the Otavalo market and buying a poncho and a blanket, we went to Condor's rescue center, where we saw falcons, condors, eagles...and we had a nice demonstration of some of the rescued animals.
From there we went to visit a waving place where we had a small demonstration of the process of how to make a blanket, scarf... from the wool, to colour the wool and how to make the end product.

Located not far away from Otavalo you can find Ecuador's capital, Quito, which is an extremely narrow long city with a nice colonial centre. It is located nearby to the 'Mitad del mundo'. This attraction park is made in honor of the equator and is so called the location where scientists made the first measurements of the equator. In reality, the equator is not within the park, oeps... It is nonetheless a place to visit, as there is something magical about driving from North till South and passing the equator. So after this required visit to the mitad del mundo, we went to the centre of Quito, where we were just on time to enjoy the carfree Sunday. Where we are happy that there is a carfree Sunday once a year in Belgium, large parts of Quito's centre are free from motorized traffic until two in the afternoon every Sunday. This provided us with the excellent opportunity to visit Quito by bike, where we focused our visit on the historical centre, which was very lively at that time. 

From Quito we went in the direction of the Ecuadorian amazon. The Andes are pretty cultivated in Ecuador, and you say the majority of the land is deforested, so it's nice to see the density of the forests. Relaxing takes places in the therms - yes, again we bother you with therms, in Papallacta. By now we can say that we are experts in therms and therefor we can inform you that these therms were really nice. Arriving at the place after sunset on a weekday we found ourselves sharing the 20 thermal pools with only two other couple. If that wasn't good enough, the pools themselves were all precious, having different sizes and temperatures, some being hidden in a corner and some having ergonomic rocks for sitting. After this relaxing night we went to Tena, a relatively charming village from where many activities can be done. We found ourselves being the only tourists in the village, apparently it was low season, and therefore were limited in the options we could do. So we went for a jungle hike of four hours together with our guide, Luis Fernando. Just a small detail on Ecuador, you can eat cheap and fuel is almost free, but activities like this are a bit overpriced. We paid 40 dollars for the guided tour, which is something we haven't paid so far for a guide, and we did reduce the price from 40 to 20 per person.

From the amazon we go back to the Andes, visiting the Quilatoa lake, a beautiful turquoise blue lake in a beautiful setting. We follow the Puyo-Baños road which brings us passed nice mountain scenery and dozens of waterfalls, passing by the volcano Tungurahua, however as it was cloudy we could not enjoy the eruptions. Arriving at the lake there is not much to do apart from hiking down to the water - a surprisingly though walk, we thought we could go down and up in less than an hour but never succeeded. Waking up early we can finally enjoy the Andes with less clouds, during half an hour we can enjoy the views of some glaciers around the lake after which the clouds take them away again.

We have spend almost one week now in the Andes at high altitudes and in all honesty we don't think we have been very lucky with the weather. It was almost always cloudy, which is a real shame when you are in the mountains - it stops you from seeing those mighty peaks and exploding volcanoes. We were therefor happy to go direction the coast, where we went to Puerto Lopez. Again, in all honesty, this is a really nasty and dirty place where you wouldn't want to spend more time than necessary. The reason why we came here that we don't have the time nor the budget to go to Ecuador's main tourist attraction: the Galagopos islands.  For people like us there is luckily an alternative, which is referred to as 'the poor man's Galapagos'. Isla de la plata is a one hour boat ride from Puerto Lopez and here you can find a some spectacular birds, of which the blue foot booby is the most famous one. During a three hour walk we could see several blue foot boobies, white foot boobies, a red foot booby, masked boobies and frigate birds. Initially we were thinking to dive at this location as it has been some time since we left Utila. Luckily we decided not to do so, as the visibility in the area was simply bad, with visibility of less than two meters.

A long drive was waiting for us to bring us back to the mountains. Here we wanted to take a shirt train ride known as the Nariz del diablo, the devil's nose. This stretch of rail is popular as it decreases/increases 600 metres over a stretch of 10 km, which apparently is a lot for a train. As the devil's nose, referring to the shape of the mountain, is very steep, they had to install a switchback, making the train go down by zigzagging the rails. We went to Alausi on a Saturday, completely neglecting it was the Easter weekend. Obviously, the whole train was sold out and we were not able to get any ticket. Luckily we are persistent and we presented ourselves at the station at 7 in the morning the next day to try to buy some tickets from people who didn't need them. Waiting for five minutes we found a tour guide who had some spare tickets which we could buy from him, excellent! The morning was sunny and cloud free, a perfect day to enjoy a scenic train ride through the Andes.

Our last touristic stop in Ecuador on our way towards the border with Peru was the colonial village of Cuenca, an excellent stop to spend some time. In many ways the place is more charming than Quito's colonial centre, it is more clean and less crowded. From here it was a long drive towards the border of Peru. Having seen that fellow travellers Marek and Zuzana took the border crossing at La Balsa we started to be interested. The border crossing first requires a long drive through some pretty muddy situations. Fun was guaranteed and we were pretty happy having chosen the scenic route again, the muddy conditions were excellent, it is always great to use the land cruiser for what is has been made!

Thank you all for reading!
Alex and Mire

Our first stop in Ecuador are the grutas de la paz 

When going into a supermarket we sometimes don't have a clue what to buy

Local wear at Otavala market - by the way, she's not Michael Jacksons twin, we just cut off her nose

Local women selling food at the Otavalo market

Same of the above

More local dressing at the Otavalo market

Yammieyammie, guinea pigs...

That's more like our daily diet!

Again, local dressing

The market is well known for its textiles

After we went to visit a bird sanctuary

The first American bold eagle we see!

Do you remember the small falcon of our Colombia post... Here it is again

Having a look at the different fabrics and how these are coloured naturally

Mireia's left side: Southern hemisphere
Mireia's right side: Northern hemisphere
Or that's what they make you believe

Quito's center was full with people

We could enjoy the traditional dance performed by these kids

The Iglesia de la compañía de jesús is one of the most decorated of Quito, Ecuador and maybe the world (?). Apparently the Spanish didn't steal all the gold in Ecuador
Panoramic views over Quito
Quito at night - or at least part of it, as it is impossible to take a picture of the city
Amazing what people can do with photoshop

We visited Pedro to have a look at the gearbox which was having some friction at certain moments

The excellent therms of Papallacta

With a nice river running next to it

Fuel is dirt cheap in Ecuador. We put 20 gallons (about 77 litres) and we paid 21 USD (about 16 EUR)

Loser alert

The natural trail we followed in the amazon


Public transportation

One, or two, of the nicer waterfalls we pass towards Baños


... from the car engine powered cable ride

Lake Quilatoa - Poncho time... Yes Mireia bought a poncho

The lake early in the morning, 'cloud free'

Hungry lama

One of the many cars which make it to the 'crap car 2014' - and this is by far the worst one we have seen in the past months

The legendary blue foot booby

Two of them

The masked booby with a chick

The male frigate has an impressive red 'balloon'

Easter in Puerto Lopez

Oeps, road block, we missed the deviation

The train station in Alausi

Mireia decided she will change of career

The train ride is rewarding

You see the rails down?

Pure enjoyment on Alex' face

It's becoming steep

Don't worry, the train is not actually riding here, it is just an optical illusion

The switchback, you first back up on a common part of rail after which you continue on another set of rails, zigzagging the mountain

The charming square of Cuenca

Amazing views driving with clouds below and above us

When you don't want people to drive on the left you sometimes need to be inventive

We really had a nice drive in this muddy area