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Trip Report Family Adventure in Ecuador

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Hello we have recently returned from a trip to Ecuador. We are a family of 5, DH, 12 year old son and 14 year old twins and me. My family likes variety and adventure; we certainly found this in Ecuador!
I got a lot of advice from this forum and tips from other friends who had been to Ecuador. We planned and booked most of our trip through Happy Gringo, our rep was named Marina. She was VERY flexible and willing to work with me, advise me and help me to see what we wanted to see. I planned for a long time but due to personal issues we did not book until maybe 5-6 weeks before we left. We were very happy Marina, Happy Gringo, our guides and our hotels. I wish they had more flexibility in the Galapagos, if they had I would have booked that part of our tour with them too. They did a great job and I highly recommend them.
Our trip was as follows:
Day 1 Travel to Quito
Day 2 Quito, the Equator
Day 3 Otavalo
Day 4 Quilotoa Volcano Hike
Day 5 Banos
Day 6 Banos
Day 7 Chimborazo
Day 8 Travel to Cuenca + Cuenca
Day 9 El Cajas National Park+ Travel to Guajaquil
Day 10 Travel to Galapagos
Day 11 Galapagos
Day 12 Galapagos
Day 13 Travel home (arrival day 14)

This will be a long trip report (there is a lot to tell!) Feel free to scroll to the day that interests you. I will try to answer whatever questions I can.

First I will say we were nervous about taking this trip with our family. The Galapagos is very tourist friendly and we did love it. The Ecuadorian Andes were amazing and you will get a bigger dose of the local and indigenous cultures here. The cities and markets were very interesting but we felt more secure in the rural areas. Some of these places were very basic. There were A LOT of people who wanted to talk with us and find out why we chose Ecuador. People would join us for lunches and want to talk for long periods of time. Every guide we had questioned us intensely about our lives, our choices, our views on Ecuador and a thousand other things. Four of the five members of my family speak some Spanish—apparently not as well as we thought! The language reminded me of Catalonian or some other dialect that I had a lot of trouble understanding at first. Things worked out if as long as we kept smiling and trying, everyone we met was welcoming and engaging. The people don’t always have much but they are very happy. Religion is very central to their lives, although I was raised Catholic and am a practicing Catholic, the manifestation of Catholicism in Ecuador is completely foreign to me. I have been to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean but this seemed much older and more like the Catholicism Spain must have brought to the New World. We enjoyed seeing the depth of the people’s faith and the expressions of it. There are complicated relationships between the people of Spanish decent, African decent and indigenous people (even among the indigenous peoples there is some sort of caste system.) I was amazed at the variety of looks the Ecuadorian people have. What a beautiful surprise for us!

A few words of advice Ecuador is a cash country. Have enough or have access to it. There are local limits on the ATM’s, take large amounts of money in small bills. We had prepaid for all of our rooms and drivers but we needed more than we expected for the attractions. Some places do take a credit card, only VISA or Mastercard for about a 10% mark up. Sometimes this was worth it.
You need your passport number for all kinds of things. It would be helpful to write it on a small piece of paper and just pull that out. I had mine locked in the hotel safe did not carry them around apparently that was expected. (Devil’s Caldron, National Park Hikes, getting into one of the churches)
Even though you are on the Equator it is not necessarily warm and sunny like you read in grade school. The elevation of Ecuador can make it quiet cool. Have many layers that can come on and off. Have a rain coat, warm pajamas and even gloves.

I read somewhere that public places often did not supply toilet paper. I found this to be the case. In the rare occasion I found paper napkins I would hoard them. Every person in my family needed one at some point. One of my sons always gets bloody noses at high altitudes (he’s broken his nose twice, maybe that is part of the reason) so these napkins were useful for that too. I made him pack a roll of tp from home, minus the cardboard roll. He laughed then used it when his nose bled. Just have a stash, better safe than sorry.

Although we haven’t in the past, this trip we chose to hire a driver. The traffic, the streets and the drivers around Quito were crazy. I was very happy not to be driving in this area. Parking in Otavalo would have been very tough and gas would have had to been cash also. We could have driven in the rural areas more easily but there is little to no signage. If you have time and a GPS (little to no phone coverage out here) you can drive yourself. We priced it out and the driver wasn’t much more. In National Parks it is required that you hire a guide, the drivers served this purpose as well. On a personal note, we really enjoyed engaging with our drivers and guides. They told us stories, history, explained situations to us, and showed us things based on our conversations that we never would have seen. Yes I know they took us to certain restaurants they get some sort of compensation for going to, but at least they all were good! Our drivers and guides really enriched our experience, I highly recommend getting one. Now on to the actual trip!

Day 1 Quito
We arrived very late (3am) to our hotel (part of our arrangements included being picked up at the airport. This was a good call) Solera House Adventure Hostel. It was a plain hotel perhaps once a grand house that has been broken into rooms designed to be a hostel. Our room was a spacious with four sets of bunk beds, two rooms and a private bath. It was accommodations were Spartan but there was a locked gate with a 24 hour guard and doorman and we felt safe. Simple but the price reflected this. We were very close to the La Ronda, more on this later. Our agent had tried to book us in a different hotel but they were full. This met our needs.
Our first morning started with hotel breakfast: fried egg with a runny yolk, cooked perfectly. A piece of meat, probably ham, coffee and juice, and something called verde. Verde was like a very solid muffin filled with corn and plantains, maybe other things. It was actually very good and kept us full for a long morning of exploring.
Our guide, Jose Luis arrived before 9:00 and we headed straight for the Equator. We had hired an English speaking guide and a driver (our driver was named Nicolai and was actually Jose Luis’ father. They usually didn’t get assigned to the same jobs as they work for different companies so we think they enjoyed the time together as well.) We were very glad to have them both in Quito and the surrounding areas. We went to the Intinan Museum. It was a little touristy but a lot of fun. The kids were stunned by the REAL shrunken heads, the queer bugs of the Amazon and the hut of the Amazonian tribe. The indigenous people are much smaller and much stronger than I realized; their weapons were huge and very heavy but the door to the hut was only about 4 feet high! (Think of the tribe that Indiana Jones encountered in Raiders of the Lost Ark—he must have been in Ecuadorian Amazon!) The experiments on the Equator were actually fun and we got the obligatory photo at latitude 0’0’. We were able to pick a banana and eat it here too: it was small dense and very good. I had read this was a tourist trap but we enjoyed it for what it was complete with getting our passports stamped “Equator.” I think we paid about $6 a piece for this. We were able to stop by El Mitad del Mundo and get a picture. We did not go in with time constraints and fees to pay. Nicolai stayed in the car and picked us up—this was VERY convenient. Parking was non-existent here and very crazy at Mitad del Mundo. Get a driver or a taxi, it was much simpler.
We headed back toward Quito to go up Teleferico, the cable car overlooking Quito. There was an $8.50 charge for adults, less for kids under 12. Quito is about 10200 ft, the top of this cable car is maybe 13000. You are really high and you go up at an incredibly steep grade. It was very cool (50’s?) at the top and I was glad I had a jacket. The views of Quito were really nice—you can see enormous distances on a clear day.
A word about the weather: it was cool when we started in the morning low 50’s, hot and sunny at the Equator, high 70’s. We dressed in layers, long pants and closed toed shoes. We took layers on and off throughout the day. I wore jeans, was hot at the Equator and cold on top of Teleferico. The city of Quito was probably in the 60’s. This was in July. Jose Luis told us this was the perfect time to visit Quito. He did the day in reverse of our original plan because planning for the clearest views of from Teleferico.
After we headed back down, Jose Luis took us to lunch at Tianguez. This was a nice place attached to San Francisco Cathedral. The square was undergoing construction and was not impressive; however the food here was really good. I had the potato, quinoa and cheese soup (there is a name I can’t remember) with half an avocado in it not something I would have planned on ordering but warmed me after the chill at the top of the Teleferico. DH and one son had the BBQ octopus and they both have raved about it ever since. Skip the veggie wraps and consider buying if a woman is selling scarves, I never found them as cheap as she was offering, would have made great gifts. Service was slow, it was not cheap but the food was really good. Choices, choices….
After lunch we began our tour of Old Town Quito. We saw several churches, the presidential palace, the bishop’s palace, the plaza del independencia. Jose Luis was very knowledgeable, we would not have any idea what we were seeing and what we were missing without him. It was money well spent. In the end we were just too tired to see the basilica so we headed to our room to rest before dinner.
For dinner we went La Rondo. I should say here that we were a little overwhelmed with some money problems, several of the sights we saw this day required small payments of cash. Normally this would have been fine but we had gotten off to a rough start in Ecuador: we discovered my husband’s wallet was missing when we got through customs in Quito. After an extensive search of the airport and the plane (while the kids and I sat in a van in an airport parking lot from an hour and a half in the middle of the night!) there was no wallet found. Luckily we had both brought a bank card and a credit card. I was carrying the passports and we still had these. Now we were short on cash and many of the places we went in Quito had a fee for this or that. Most of the places in La Rondo did not take credit cards. It was intimidating to find an ATM in the foreign city, in the dark, with a hungry tired family in tow. There were several armed men at one indoor ATM and we chose this one. I admit I was pretty nervous using the ATM, we only had one bank card and my mind blanked on the Spanish on the screen when I went to make a withdraw. We were able to withdraw money and able to eat that night. Yeah! First Ecuadoran adventure was under our belts.
Since hindsight is 20/20 I will say we did take some precautions: I had a specialized travel purse that could fit money, all 5 passports, my phone, sunglasses and small sunscreen. It was made it be tough to cut through for a pick pocket. I carried a small amount of money in my pocket and when we were in the city, a small wallet with a few dollars to give to someone if we were robbed. My husband had a money belt (yeah not all cash lost!) and a small amount of money in his carry on bag. The spreading out of our resources helped us. We knew we needed $500 cash to get into the Galapagos so budgeting was tight. We would have taken more cast out in Quito if we had it to do over again. We spent the entire trip believing we had been robbed in the customs or immigration line (very long, very slow.) However, when we arrived home after our trip we had a notice from the Atlanta airport telling us an item of belonging to my husband had been found and we needed to claim it in 14 days. Yes it was his wallet! Happy ending it was returned with all credit and bank cards (now cancelled), his driver’s license and most of the cash. Someone had taken the twenties and fifties but had left the fives and tens. Thank you for turning it in; I will always wonder why any cash was left at all. Strange world!
Back in La Rondo a full festival atmosphere was in effect. There were all kinds of street performers, musicians, couples and families on the street. We enjoyed walking in and out of the shops and restaurants just enjoying the night. We actually ate at a pizza place that had a small chapel inside. We sat right next to it and relaxed with a drink. My husband had a quinoa beer, a local craft brew that was pretty good. Halfway through dinner a group of maybe a dozen nuns in full traditional dress came into the chapel. They stayed for a short time then left but not before fawning over my children, cooing and clucking in the universal language of grandmothers. Not sure what they did in there or even why there was a full fledged chapel inside of a pizza place. Whole thing was sort of surreal. We were hooked.

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    Looking forward to the rest. Good that you had things split up. I never carry my passport. Where were you asked for it when you went to use your credit card? I tried to have an extra hundred or 50 cash hidden in case there was no ATM. No issue finding one in Quito. But La Ronda is def on the edge if sketchy! I wouldn't have put you there.

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    Excellent report, looking forward to reading more. You hit upon two essentials for travel in South America - aalways carry a supply of toilet paper and a photocopy of your passport! We visited mitad del mundo by public transport- huge mistake. It took forever because of te traffic, change if buses, trams etc. On reflection, it would have been much easier by taxi.

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    Nice start to your TR. Too bad about the wallet. I once had money taken from my wallet at work. They took most of it but left a samll amount. the police told me that theives often do that soyou wont notice the missing money right away whic is exactly what happned to me.

    mlgb -- what time of the day/night were you at La Ronda? We found it as the OP described. Rather empty during the day, but hopping in the evening and night.

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    Thank you for your feedback. I wrote this a while ago but I had lost my journal. Your comments make we want to put it all back together.


    Day 3

    Otavalo
    There was some sort of celebration at our hotel that went on very late into the night. I would have guessed a wedding with a very loud band and an enthusiastic group of partiers. We could hear them all night but in the morning there was no sign it had happened. It was a long night.
    We were scheduled to be picked by our driver 8:00, the same as the day before, Jose Luis and his father Nicolai. We had a quick stop at the basilica we missed the day before. We only took pictures of all of the amazing statues that line the outside. There are so many creatures from the sea and jungle that were carved on the walls. It is pretty neat. We did not do the tour as we wanted to get to Otavalo.
    Our long drive up to Otavalo was filled with information by Luis. He had taught himself English by watching movies online. His English was excellent and he was able to earn a certification to conduct the tours. He gets paid more as an English guide and gets into many of the attractions free with his badge. We liked his work ethic, very common throughout Ecuador.
    We had clear views of the many volcanos along The Avenue of the Volcanos. We heard their names and tried to figure out why they were named what they were. At our clear of Cotopaxi and we stopped at a roadside lookout for panoramic shots. Nice. We travelled through a rose town that thrives on rose selling, mostly internationally but there were huge bouquets of 2-3 dozen roses for sale. Many were 2 dozen for $2! The farms and greenhouses here can be toured but they were not open the Saturday we went through. There were people selling fruits and ice creams and they would come up to the car on red lights. We bought the tangerines, maybe 10 for $1. They were very fresh.
    We stopped by a gorgeous lake in the mountains and took pictures. The hotel here was called Los Lagos. It don’t know what the reviews are like on this place but I would have liked to stay here a night and headed up to Otavalo early. There are manicured grounds, llamas and alpacas to pet. It is located on a crystal clear blue and glacially cold lake. The lake is full of fish and small boats but it was chilly there (maybe 55-60F + wind). Rolling mountains rise right out of the lake, it reminds of the West Maui Mountains. Probably the prettiest bathroom break I have ever taken!
    Condor Rescue Center
    We wanted to make the raptor show at the Condor Rescue center so we kept moving. The shows occur at 11:30 and 3:30. The Condor Rescue center is basically a zoo for birds who have been confiscated by the police or found injured and sent here for rehab. The birds that were pets can’t be released and some have been injured so badly they could not survive in the wild. 70% of the raptors were here because they had been shot. Farmers are afraid that the humongous condors are hunting their live stock. It appears the birds only eat carrion but some indigenous people believe otherwise. The center tries to educate. We were charged $4.75 per person to get in which was less than we were told. Our guide went in free. The center is maybe 4-5 km from Otavalo and overlooks the town that is several hundred feet below. It was sunny but maybe 60F here and windy at the amphitheater. When we gathered for the show after seeing the enclosures, we could hear music from the town below from some family celebration.
    None of the condors currently at the center can fly. They are also so big and powerful that they would be very hard to control! (One spread his wings for us and it was 8-10 feet across.) I had seen shows with eagles and hawks so I was disappointed when I heard this—rest assured the show was totally worth the visit! The presentation was in Spanish so I had to sort through was what being said. Our guide helped us with the translation but he, who had never been here either, was just as amazed by the show as we were! Sometimes he forgot to translate and just watched in stunned silence. The show started with a small hawk flying just over our heads and to the presenter’s arm. Small hawks and owls there would catch pieces of meat in the air. We were in the front row and one owl hopped along the wall in front of us and stopped about 6 inches from my son. The owl held eye contact with him for a long time. It was crazy to wonder what he was thinking as he stared unblinking at my youngest child. My youngest stared back at him through the GoPro lens—great footage! As the show progressed, so did the bird size. There were large hawks that swooped just over the heads of the crowd and caught pieces of meat in the air. They stared so hard at the crowd you knew exactly where the “watch him like a hawk” phrase came from! There were eagles who soared down into the valley, stretching their magnificent wings at speeds I had not imagined. There were wild hawks (or eagles?) who came to join the show (the moderator called them “Voluntarios” ) who would try to grab the food from the performing raptors. The wild hawks were tough competition for the captive hawks but when the eagles started flying—WOW!! There is no zoo show or bird display I have ever seen that compares! A huge female bald eagle silently swooped down over the crowd, making us all glad we weren’t what she was hunting. When our host tossed her into the air and sent she flew out over the valley for miles, I wasn’t sure she was coming back. When he threw food in the air she instantly caught it—almost as quickly there was 1…then 2…then 3 wild hawks on her fighting for the fresh meat—this is all taking place miles above the town of Otavalo—the four of them fighting and slashing with their talons---I was seriously worried for her---but the eagle was amazingly strong and agile she fought off all three hawks and everyone lived to hunt another day. (They said that Gringo, the male bald eagle was resting and would not fly this morning. Because we could see in out, tethered to his stand, I took this to mean he was going to kill the wild hawks if they let HIM fly and that didn’t do much to preserve the wild raptors so they were keeping him under wraps for now. What a show!) It is really worth going here but make sure you see the show.
    Otavalo
    We left here and headed into Otavalo. We were taken to a wonderful restaurant for lunch; I believe it was called Inty la Rayni. It was very fancy, the food was excellent and huge portions. (I actually took mine and carried it around the market later however everywhere we ate had huge portions and I never ended up eating this food.) A small thing I noticed throughout Ecuador is that there are no plastic straws, no paper plates, no paper napkins or paper cups. Every place we ate, youth hostels, street vendors you got a real fork and a cloth napkin. The plates were ceramic not paper; just a cultural difference but one I liked. As I said food was very good but lunch took a long time; I believe it was supposed to. This was a time to relax and visit, eat with your family. But this time we really came to see the market and let the kids experience this. We spent such a long time at lunch that we never made it to the nearby town that sells leather goods, something I was hoping to do. On the other hand, no one got sick from bad street food either. My thoughts, if you have the time and the budget enjoy this wonderful place, do so. If you are in a hurry or on a tight budget, maybe try some street food. In all fairness, most of it looked pretty good.
    A word about the market: It is everything you have heard, you can buy anything here and prices were better than anywhere else I saw in Ecuador. T shirts were $5, blankets $10, alpaca ponchos $15 (2 for $30) , alpaca scarves 2 for $15. My husband and my boys all bought traditional leather belts with colorful weaving on them; a similar belt would be $40 in the US, here they were $30 for three. These are not crappy crafts either. Some of the women were weaving on looms as we went by, others may have bought theirs from factories. The products we bought were well made. Many things can be bargained for, some people would not work a deal, many others would. One of my sons said there was a man selling drugs; missed it so I can’t say if it was traditional medicine or illicit drugs (or even what is legal and what is not here) but over we felt safe. I will say there was a child who tugged on my purse (small cross body, will write brand name later) and did not get it but I would be careful of my valuables in a crowd. Most people were very kind. We gave our kids a small amount of money and told them to go sharpen their bargaining skills. It was very enjoyable.
    We would have liked to explore much more , the stalls went on for streets and streets. We could have eaten on the street at some vendors: there was meat and potatoes cooking in a pan over an open fire, there were fish, probably trout, on a BBQ, soups, chicken and many Ecuadorian foods I did not know. We were not confident with the country yet so we would not have known where to start. By the end of our trip we could have easily eaten here. There were spice vendors who sold spices from huge containers and scooped out what you needed, fruit vendors and jewelry vendors too. We had to get on the road too soon and head back down the Avenue of the Volcanos and eventually to the extraordinary La Cienega.

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    You're lucky to have seen the volcanoes! Some of us have been 2x or more and barely had glimpses. It is a better chance in the morning, so it was good that you left early. What a shame that your lunch took so long that you couldn't go to one of your desired stops. I wonder if the company of the driver got a kickback. Another possibility is that you were running late and the restaurants in Cotacachi would be closed, One thing I discovered is the need to eat "on time" in the smaller towns, or you would be out of luck. I also think tour companies don't want to take a chance with their tourists getting sick, or that is their excuse anyways.

    Waiting for the next installment.

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    Im envious that you saw the volcanoes as we did not see much on our visit last year. The market is something else -- did you see the animal markey by chance? We did eat some street food and are here to tell about it. But it always pays to be cautious-no one want to get sick while traveling.

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    You were indeed lucky to see the volcanos - a couple of months in Ecuador and the only volcano I saw was Chimborazo and only then because we biked down it! We had to return to see the famed Cotopaxi which I was beginning to think was a fictional mountain!

    Some of the best food we ate in Ecuador was in the markets and street stalls. You do need to be careful though. Great stuff, keep it coming.

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    Mlgb, I think we were late because we stopped at the cathedral and especially at the condor rescue center. We stopped several times to see the volcanos; we had a completely clear view the entire way. The only one we had trouble seeing was Cotapaxi. We missed the leather town but in the end it was a good trade off. Yes we think our drivers got at least a free lunch for taking us to their favorite restaurants but in their defense the food was really good each place we ate. Later in the trip we would eat with our drivers and guides. I had a feeling that was not super common but we enjoyed talking with them as best we could. Great experience.

    yestravel we were too late to Otavalo to see the animal markets. We were advised it is best to go very early and it is all over by 9-10. If you stayed at Los Lagos de San Pablo or in Otavalo this would be possible. Much tougher from Quito (we left about 7:45.)
    We were able to see an animal market and much more later in our trip at Guamote. Stay tuned....

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    Day 4
    La Hacienda La Ceinega
    We arrived after a long day to and from Otavalo to this former plantation. Huge iron gates built in the 1600’s are at the head of the hacienda property; they hang from a 10-12 foot high stone wall that appears to surround all the lands. The long tree lined drive leads to the original hacienda that has been added on to make it a modern place to stay. The hacienda maintains its original charm with three foot thick volcanic rock walls and marble floors throughout. In the lobby we were welcomed by a huge display of maybe 4 dozen roses and fresh roses were on every table throughout the property. An entire retinue met us upon our arrival—at least one porter for every bag and they took us right to our rooms. We had two rooms: 3 beds in one and one double (through they said King) in the other. Each room had its own bathroom and its own fireplace with a warm fire burning in the hearth. It seemed excessive at the time but the weather changed quickly. There was WiFi in the lobby area but it did not reach the rooms. We explored the courtyards, fountains, library, and chapel then headed to dinner.
    There must have been a tour group in the house because the main dining room was crowded. We were shown to a quieter area that did not feel shoved in a corner. We were immediately served a hot drink, Canelazo, hot cinnamon, sweet alcoholic drink that we were served in several places in the mountains. There is a non alcoholic version for the kids. It warmed and relaxed you, I couldn’t have more than one but it was a nice start to the meal. Dinner was steak for some, chicken for others and something vegetarian or fish for me. I honestly can’t remember which but I remember it was good. I guess it’s enough to say there were vegetarian choices at most places we visited and the fish was good in the mountains but got fresher and fresher as we worked our way to the sea. Here, as they did throughout the country, my kids enjoyed jugos de fruta—fresh fruit juices made with just fresh fruit and ice. Mura (blackberry) was pretty popular as was Pina. It is amazing to see teenagers choosing fruits over sodas but they were that good.
    There was an Ecuadorian musical quartet that performed for everyone at dinner. Many of our dinners had something like this, but this one was particularly good and they were able to sell their CD’s after dinner. I recognized “El Condor Paso,” an old Simon and Garfunkle hit, played with the Ecuadorian pipes. As our trip progressed we heard this song over and over again, in fact it seemed to be the ONLY song when the radio in a car got turned on or when street vendors played. Every taxi driver played it at least once and whistled along to it. It became sort of a joke for our family. Either they think we LOVE this song or the people of Ecuador do. I’m not sure but it still makes me smile.
    My youngest son was exhausted by this time and wanted to go to bed. I walked him back to his room and restarted the fire. It was pretty chilly now that the sun had gone down. I felt secure enough to go back and enjoy dessert (just down the hall.) I somehow ordered some sort of sorbet clearly fresh made with blackberries and half a fruit, (maybe a peach or tree tomato in it?) flavors were very strong and very complimentary. It is not something I would have ordered on purpose but it was wonderful.
    Our room was very chilly by the time we got back. Thank you (!) to whomever on this forum said to pack WARM pajamas for nights in the mountains! It would not have occurred to me and we needed them the whole time we were at high altitudes.
    We could not get our fire restarted, there was only green wood in the room, so we covered ourselves with the alpaca shaws I had bought in Otavalo and settled down for the night. In the morning the beautiful marble floors were very cold and the amazing volcanic stone walls did nothing to warm the chill. The shower had directions that it may need to run 15-20 minutes before it got warm; it never did. But we were WIDE awake for breakfast! We spotted our guide, Milton, who had picked us up from the airport and asked him to join us for breakfast. Fresh fruit, homemade jam, eggs made to order, fresh rolls, and an especially enjoyable hot chocolate! We headed then we all headed off to our day’s adventure, Quilotoa.
    Quilotoa
    As we pulled out of La Cienaga, the sky was a brilliant blue with only a few clouds, and the very symbol of Ecuador, the mighty Cotapaxi emerged from the small clouds around its snow covered peak. This must be a rare occurrence because Milton, our wonderful guide, screamed and pointed, “Cotapaxi!!” We stopped the car and took pictures, steam was still venting from the top of her cone. For those who don’t know this is a perfectly shaped conical volcano with snowy peaks (yes at the Equator!) and surrounded by a national park. There is great hiking and horseback riding here, if the park is open. Several months before our trip, Cotapaxi erupted. Most of the national park was still closed when we were there so we changed our trip to head to Quilotoa and later Chimborozo. It was still a beautiful way to start the day!
    We took the long road from La Cienaga to Quilotoa. Quilotoa is a huge extinct volcano whose crater now contains a lake. You can hike around the rim of the crater or hike down inside of it and kayak in the lake.
    The entire drive, Milton kept a steady stream of commentary about what was growing in the fields, barly, quinoa, etc or what animals we were passing. Sometimes it was comical sheep, sheep, sheep sheep but usually it was informative. He was hired as a Spanish speaking guide (we pay less so presumably he gets paid less?) and I imagine he was trying to teach himself English to increase his rate. When we finally reached Quilotoa it was very windy and much cooler then when we had started at La Cienaga. At the crater rim’s 13,500 feet you need several layers of clothes. We took off to hike down into the crater, leaving all of our luggage and valuables with Milton, again glad we had a driver.
    The path down was steep and the dirt is a very fine volcanic ash. It should not have surprised me but I have hiked into the crater of Haleakala and found in more gravely than rocky. The ash is slippery and covers everything with a fine layer of, well itself. We peeled off layers as we dropped to 11,500 feet in about 45 minutes. The air is thin throughout this hike. The lake at the bottom is crystal clear and very cold. It is maybe 2km (a mile?) across. There were a few brave kayakers but most had a picnic, snack or drink on the shore and started the return hike.
    I am a slower hiker than my boys and my husband so I elected, short of cash and all, to ride a mule back to the top. $10 well spent! My mule was so small there were two other people who had already said no to her. I climbed on her and hadn’t even paid, and she took right off for the rim of the crater. If she’d had reigns I would have stopped her but there was only a guide rope a child threw me. I am guessing my guide was negotiating with others behind me, but my mule wasn’t waiting. I just held on to the rope and the saddle horn, with my feet 6 inches off the ground I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but I really enjoyed this part! I’d “let” the little sweetie stop and munch on the sparse vegetation or rest from time to time. While going down on foot takes 45 minutes, going back up usually takes an hour and a half, horseback considerably less. Eventually, my guide, a boy of 8-9 years old caught up with us. My smart little mule knew and climbed just fast enough each time he got close to ensure he did not catch up! He had two other horses he was leading and there is only one trail so I don’t think he was really worried. It was fun to watch this interaction. The rest of my family met me up at the top, their hikes ranged from 38 minutes to about an hour and 15 minutes. There was a place to eat overlooking the crater but our guide Milton suggested we eat across the street (a dirt parking area) where the food was better and half the price. It was about $4 each for “tipicos” hot soup, rice, plantains, salad and chicken. The vegetarian version was just more of the other things, no chicken. It was still pretty cool, and very windy on top of the crater so the hot meal was appreciated.
    It is a long drive out of Quilotoa: these were dry, rocky lands, little growing. Here is a case where you see the extremes of Ecuador. We drove through the avenue of the Volcanos, dry, brown and rocky. As the altitude decreases, there are gradually more fields filled with crops. Suddenly you pass through a rainstorm and around one mountain curve, everything is green. Go a little lower and orchards of tropical fruits replace fields of quinoa and lupine. Then suddenly there are a beautiful string of green mountains covered in lush vegetation. It again brings to mind the West Maui Mountains. The fields are so high and so steep up on the slopes of the mountains you can’t believe they can farm at the angle. We curved around one of these green giants to find a huge bright rainbow covering the entire sky and dropping down maybe 1500 more feet to Banos. It was breath taking. We knew we were going to love this place!

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    What a great report.. I'm glad you decided to post another episode. I LOL'd at a few points, especially "Cotopaxi!", and the bad mul(ette). At least she let you stay on!

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    Banos
    On the way into town, Milton took us to see one of his buddies, a tour broker of sorts. We talked with him as Milton circled and decided on 2 tours the next day. He reluctantly agreed to take a credit card, so we made arrangements and headed to our hotel.
    Our hotel in Banos was the Posada del Arte. This was a unique place where the rooms ramble and the walls are covered with original pieces of art. Many of these pieces are for sale. Each room is furnished differently and each has artistic touches. Our room had a bunk bed in one area, a bathroom with a large soaking tub, a queen size bed and a fireplace in another part of the room. Our location was amazing. I could pull back the curtain while laying in bed and watch the waterfall that feeds the thermal baths (for which Banos is named) cascade down the side of a mountain. It is lit in pastel colors after dark. We could sit on the porch outside of our rooms and watch it any time of day or night. Our other room had a double bed and a single, a fireplace and a bathroom with a shower only. The ceilings give the appearance of being woven from straw and held up by bamboo. The Spanish tile roofs make the whole place feel quaint. As you walk into the hotel you go right into a dining area and a warm living room. This was a place where people gathered by the warm fire (much appreciated on a chilly rainy night!), had a glass of wine, exchanged stories and petted the house dog. WiFi worked here—my teens who had been out of touch for days were thrilled to relax here! I had a really good dinner here and our server, who did everything here, was very welcoming. There was another diner we had a great conversation with; he was from France and filming an IMAX movie about Ecuador. He had already filmed in the Amazon and he was there to serve as a mountain climbing guide to the crew as they summited Chimborazo. I told him I would include him in my report. I hope your climb was a success if you are reading this! My dinner was Plantanos Aztecas-- a spicy vegetarian dish of deep-fried plantains, cheese, rice and beans topped by a rich chipotle sauce--that was fantastic. My husband had the orange chicken he said it was dry and overcooked, my son loved it. The other two had a filet and they were pretty happy too. Overall a great start.
    Day 5
    Banos Adventure
    Posada del Arte served a very full complete breakfast. As best we could understand, they brought us everything on the menu. It was very good.
    Our guide, Pablo, arrived 20 minutes early for our bike ride down the Avenue of the Waterfalls. He made sure everyone had a bike and a helmet that worked for them and we were ready to go. I think we could have done this ride on our own but we were happy with our guide. When a chain came off a bike, he fixed it, when someone felt there was something wrong with their bike, he traded bikes with them. He gave suggestions throughout the ride and stopped from time to time to give insights about the things we were seeing. The ride itself was a fairly easy one, mostly downhill but there were a few rises. There were waterfalls to see the whole way. The traffic was nerve wrecking; especially the tunnel you share with the cars and trucks. I will say there was a car that was sitting at the end when I came out and he waited to go in until my son was out too. People were pretty nice and aware, but they do drive fast.
    I enjoyed the ride much more when we ventured off the main road and around the long tunnel. This gave me the chance to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It reminded me of the Road to Hana but when I’ve done that I was in the car not worried about being hit (or more to the point one of my kids being hit) by a car. The roads were wet and a mist was falling. This made the roads less crowded and the paths almost empty. We stopped, not at the first chance, and my boys talked me into letting them do a triple zipline! This was not their first zip line but it was probably the most terrifying for me—watching all three of my sons take off together Superman style over a misty canyon in a foreign land right over a waterfall---they loved it! The zip line staff met them on the other side with their bikes.
    A word about the money involved: The zip line was $10 per person. One reason we stopped here—okay it was the triple zip!!—was that they would accept credit cards. Until this point we had not actually paid for our bike tour. At this stop, we were charged $10 per person for the zip line and $1 for every $10 we charged (fees common throughout Ecuador, 10-15% per $10 charged on credit cards, because of our cash situation we were happy to pay it.) We also paid $66 for the tour which included our bikes, helmets, guide and ride back (and the fees.) You can probably do it for less, we saw lots of signs for $5-$7 per bike, truck rides for $10 but we were happy with our plan. Our guide and the woman who ran the stop negotiated and we also charged our afternoon excursion here. Sounds like there are not a lot of credit card machines and the two of them worked out a deal. They were probably cousins or something, no worries, we felt the price was fair and no one stole our credit cards or anything.
    Back on the trail, we took a cable car across the river valley, $10 for the whole family. We stopped over a waterfall then got out at the other side. There was a hostel/posada here it was surrounded by fruit trees and tropical flowers. It was simple, but a beautiful place to stay. We walked down to the water and startled a flock of blue and yellow tropical birds, similar to tucans or macaws, they flew out over the water then through the mist caused by the waterfall. Just one of those moments…
    Back on the other side we finished the ride and stored our bikes with a friend of Pablo’s (another reason for a guide, we had no lock nor any idea where to put the bikes. Apparently bikes get stolen all the time!) We then started the 40 minute hike down to the Devil’s Caldron Waterfall. You can see quaint shots of this site on Pinterest, but like everything in Ecuador we found it to be more extreme than we expected!
    There are now two gates to the DC waterfall, we took the lower entrance that allows you to go under the falls. The upper gate lets you go above it. We hiked down to the falls and paid $2 per person (cash only) at the gatehouse. There were many more people on the trail now but like most hikes, if you go a little further the crowds thin out. It had rained the night before and we could hear the falls long before we got there. We climbed the slippery path to the first overlook and were stunned at the raging waterfall. Pablo held our camera and everything we wanted to keep dry—or might blow away the torrents of water were causing air to surge—while we worked our way closer to the falls. We figured things might get damp so we agreed. My sons climbed ahead but I stopped and gawked at how much bigger and wilder this waterfall was than the serene Hobbit like pictures on Pinterest. We worked our way further along the slippery path and while we were getting wet from the spray, we weren’t worried about going over. We found a cave like opening that lead even closer to the falls. First I had to duck, then squat, finally I was on my belly scooting along (did I mention it was wet?) Then the cavern opened up and I found myself in a small vertical passage with a few stairs carved in the rock. The opening was small enough that I had to hand my small backpack to my son before I hauled myself up. Here there was a window in the rock and the falls were so loud we could hardly hear each other. The falls were raging at this point; my youngest son tried to put his arm out but we were afraid the tons of water raging over the falls might break his arm or pull him over. We stepped back, pretty wet but with in respect and awe.
    The water from this waterfall does not fall like a faucet, it pours unevenly like waves pounding the shore. We worked our way back to the original platform then climbed down the slippery stairs to the viewing platform. Have you ever seen the weather channel during a hurricane? The viewing platform huge waves of water were washed over the walls there soaking us even more and knocking us backwards! I didn’t know I could get any wetter! I discovered later the falls were closed a few days before we got there because the water was so high and powerful. I’m not sure how it could be any higher!
    I hope I have conveyed that is a wild place. We were in hiking boots, leggings and raincoats carefully storing anything that might get wet from a rouge wave or a wind gust. We carefully stored cameras and anything that might blow away. So in the middle of this wet, wild (and a little chilly) environment there is a woman, wearing little more than a long denim shirt and red stilettos, whipping her waist long hair and swaying to a boom box. Her crew is standing around filming, a music video? We have no idea if she was someone famous or a YouTube starlet but we know she was brave! She walked out on the slippery swaying bridge that overlooked the falls in her red stilettos to undulate while she was being pummeled by the frigid water from the waterfall’s spray. It’s hard to look seductive in such tough conditions; that’s kind of how Ecuador is: you can tell people have a tough life but they make the best of it. Kind of a snap shot of Ecuador.
    We finished our photos and hiked back out. Of course the way out was harder and by the time we reached the top we were sweating. We grabbed a truck back and headed back to town. The pickup truck was an adventure of sorts by itself; always something happening!
    Most people would chill out after a morning like this but we like to push the envelope. My family grabbed a hamburger from a place on the street and we met back up with Pablo to go canyoning. They said the bun and the burger were fresh made and excellent. There weren’t many choices for vegetarians that were fast and on the street. I ducked into a small market and bought a snack instead then hurried to meet Pablo.
    We loaded into a van with two other guests. We drove out of town to a private property. Here we changed into the wet suits and protective booties. Then we hiked to the waterfalls. The hike was very hot and felt like a long way, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad but we were tired at this point! We had to climb up a steep incline where Pablo, our same guide from the morning, and his friend Juan gave us instructions on how to repel down the first waterfall. The first one was hard but only about 5 meters. The water was really cold—so glad we had the wetsuits on! The second waterfall was much bigger and it was so hard to talk myself into that first step off the edge! I was so scared and the frigid water was pounding on me as I tried to climb down the falls. I leaned back and used the ropes the way Pablo had showed us. I basically walked down a vertical wall with water pounding all over me! It was great! The next 3 waterfalls just got bigger. By the time we did the last one I walked down it like a pro. I have never done anything like this—I don’t even love heights—but I did it as well or better than my very fit teenagers and DH. It made me feel great! We rode down the last water fall like a slide. I had thought the water was cold when it was pounding me but being up to my shoulders in it---brrrr!! Our GoPro films don’t capture how big the waterfalls were or how steep but they do show it was awesome! We a great time, highly recommend this. I think we paid $35 a person for this outing. Great time!
    We had to go back and get showered up. Exhausted, we just ate at Posada del Arte. My meal was great, I had the same thing, DH’s not so much. The kids just wanted to pet the dog, hang out by the fire and say hey to their friends on social media. DH was happy enough with his Pilsner.

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    Wow, Banos sounds amazing! I really wanted to spend a few days there, but my husband and I opted to do this the next time we're in Ecuador. I'm so glad you didn't let your fears prevent you from joining your family in the adventure activities.

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    Day 6
    Banos
    We had a good portion of the day in Banos thanks to Milton negotiating with us as to when we could be picked up. This morning we were headed to the baths. We were able to borrow bathing caps (which are required) from our hotel. The pools were varying levels of hot, some scalding, some easy to hang out in for longer times. The Ecuadorian people, almost everyone except us, would shower off in the frigid waters straight from the waterfalls then climb into the hottest pool they could stand, from the geothermic heat of the volcano. Then they would do it again. We tried to follow their lead but we were not very good at handling the REALLY hot or the REALLY cold waters. We hung out here a while and relaxed, took it all in. Gradually my family went back to the hotel to clean up, I stayed in the hottest pool until I had to leave (check out time!) People came over and talked to me as we soaked, the Ecuadorians are very friendly and welcoming. One woman wanted to know about my blond hair and tell me about her home in the rainforest. She was here for some sort of healing my Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand, maybe arthritis. This is very common as the hot and cold immersions can result in deep muscle release.
    We cleaned up at the hotel and the hotel held our bags so we could look around Banos. We started by touring the cathedral. The murals told stories of why the cathedral was built here and the stories of the miracles the people have seen in the area. They are interesting and easy to follow. We enjoyed this and recommend stopping in. We then searched for the “right hat” for one of my sons who had lost his in the wind at Quilotoa. We knew we would need it at Chimborazo. There were plenty of shops and stalls to explore. We then ate pizza on from a small shop, it was terrible but it served the purpose. We met back up with Milton and headed to Riobamba.
    We were sad to leave Banos and its wet but lush green jungles behind. Driving out was almost as good as driving in. We learned from Milton that there was a road closed and we would have to go a bit around from our original plan. We were glad we had his knowledge here as we would not have found the closed road for an hour or more down the trail and would have had to back track. DH and I agree we would have been okay driving but overall a driver with their knowledge and insight was a good decision for us on this trip.

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    Still following along- all great stuff and reminding me our our time in Ecuador. Hiking in wetsuits! Wow that mustbof been hot! Looking forward to reading your impressions of Chimborazo.

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    Crellston It was REALLY hot--until we hit the frigid water from the falls. The water felt great until you thought--Wait am I really going to walk backwards over a 15 meter cliff?!?! The highest one was 20-25 meters, still can't believe I did it!

    Thanks alisa23 for following, motivates me to copy the rest from my journal. Great record for my family to read later too.


    Riobamba
    We came here to set up our next day on Chimborazo. The altitude of Banos is about 6000 feet, slightly higher than Denver’s 5600 feet. Riobamba is about 9000 feet; it’s generally cooler and drier than Banos. It is also the place to stay if you have an early ride on the Devil’s Nose Train or a bike ride down Chimborazo. We were dropped at our hotel in the early evening and while we could have called a cab and gone to see something, we did not find that there was anything in particular we wanted to do. We were happy to explore our hotel.
    We stayed at the Abraspungo Hacienda. This hacienda was not so old, maybe the oldest part being 60-70 years old but it has been recreated to give that Old World feel. There are beautiful gardens, nice courtyards, firepits, a small craft boutique, pool tables and a bar area. We encountered our first TV and hairdryer in Ecuador. (Don’t laugh—if you have long hair like I do you’ll be glad you ignored the travelers who say leave the hairdryer at home. Wet hair might be okay in the Galapagos but it made you pretty chilly high in the Andes!) We had again requested a sleeping arrangement where everyone had a bed. Maybe two double beds and a pull out bed? Again, we were overwhelmed with the amount of room we had! The rooms here are named for the volcanos on the Avenue of the Volcanos. Our boys were in Pichinicha named for the volcano in Quito City where Teleferico is. Their room had two twin beds, a full bath, a sitting room and a queen size bed in the other room of their room. They had a full set of patio furniture on their front “porch.” This would have been plenty of room for all of us. Our room was named Quilodana. It was across the courtyard with a porch swing and a bench seat on the porch. There was a king size bed, a sitting table and a full bath. For the first time in Ecuador, all members of our family got a hot shower—very hot. ( :
    We visited the bar area while the kids watched Sponge Bob in Spanish. We spent a good hour visiting with the restaurant manager who was working as the bartender. He, like so many other people here, was kind and engaging. He was once an exchange student in the U.S. and had lived there for 16 years. He was insightful and explained things about HA to us. We really enjoyed visiting with him.
    The food was good, dinner better than breakfast but it was all expensive for Ecuador. It doesn’t matter. If you stay here you eat here; there’s not really anywhere else to go. Our only issue HA was that there was no real heat. There was a metal pipe in our room that was supposed to radiate heat from a fireplace located somewhere else (floor below?) At times the pipe itself would get warm but never enough to even dry our socks much less warm the room. We stayed under the abundant blankets covered in alpaca scarves and layers of clothes.
    We were here in July and stayed 2 nights. The first night there seemed to be a tour bus and another small group. The hotel was maybe half full. The next night was not full at all. This is a good place to stay if you are going on the Devil’s Nose Train or to Chimborazo but maybe not as much for the town itself.

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    Day 7
    Chimborazo
    The first thing I will tell you about Chimborazo is that we survived. We had originally planned to go to Cotapaxi for horseback riding and trekking. During our planning phase, Cotapaxi erupted and the park around it was closed. As of our trip, most of the park was still closed so we switched it up for Chimborazo. We had hoped to spend another day in Banos but we were told the distances did not make this possible hence we traveled to Riobamba. We planned a short hike in the national park and a bike ride down the mountain.
    Here’s how it unfolded. The Hacienda Abraspungo’s resident rooster woke me up about 4 am. My stomach did not feel good. Over the next few hours my nausea increased despite drinking lots of water. At breakfast, the waiter offered me a mix of teas, Anis and something else, that did help settle my stomach enough to leave with our crew at 9:00.
    I was surprised that our usual driver, Milton picked us up along with our biking guide, Alejandro. Alejandro was with Jose 2 Dogs out of Banos. We never did understand why they could make the trip that morning and we had to stay in Riobamba but it all worked out. We drove to Chimborazo it was maybe 40F and misty rain. As we climbed the mountainous road we saw alpaca and vicuna. We learned from Milton there are llamas and alpacas and when you cross them you get junaca. Then there is this odd looking animal that looks like a llama, a deer and a giraffe were all crossed: the vicuna. They are their own creature and run around the roads going up to Chimborazo; fun to see. As we climbed higher on the mountain road and entered the national park, the misty rain turned from sleet to snow. We reached the parking lot for Whymper Lodge where our chase car and bikes were there with another driver. The sleety rain was really coming down now. My head was killing me and my stomach was feeling bad again. The Lodge is maybe 9600 meters (16,400 feet) and you climb up from the parking lot. The thin air made the climb very slow and very difficult. The more we climbed, the worse my stomach felt, the harder it was to breathe and the more tired I felt. It snowed and sleeted and the wind blew in great gusts. By the time we reached the top, all I wanted to do was lay down and go to sleep. I was completely exhausted and frankly unable to make the decision to turn around. Every step of the way on the path up and back down one of my family members held my hand and encouraged me. Their kindness and care was a wonderful side effect of my nasty bout of altitude sickness.
    By the time we arrived back at the parking lot there was no question of my riding a bike. I was bundled into the van and taken by Milton all the way down the mountain to the town of San Juan. As the altitude decreased I became more aware and even took pictures of baby alpaca we passed and vicuna but I was completely exhausted and slept in the van until the bikers reached us.
    The actual bike ride was a mixed success. Five minutes into the ride my 11 year old crashed on the rocky dirt road still inside the park. It was raining and sleeting heavily and he landed in a big puddle he was soaked! He rode a little further but was so cold he asked to ride in the chase car. At the end of the rocky dirt road that is the entrance to the national park, there is a parking lot where the remaining riders regrouped. One of my remaining sons had also wrecked his bike, ripped his pants and was pretty upset that neither the van nor I was here to meet them. I think the strain and the altitude also got to him and he flipped out. Well, our poor guide Alejandro had seen enough and pulled my son off the ride. My husband, my remaining son and our guide all wished they could get out of the freezing rain and into the car but it was full. They had to finish the ride. Only 38 more km to go….I was told later about the terror and thrill of the remainder of the ride. The ride down to San Juan was scary on wet pavement, through fog, clouds, alternating between rain and freezing rain. My son who did ride said he just kept trying to move his hands, clean his glasses, and finish the ride. DH said it was the best worst thing he had ever done. Flying 35 mph down a mountain road hands so cold he had to stop to regain feeling. Even our guide later admitted it was worse weather than he usually found. Okay maybe the worst ride he’d had….
    So the final score was Chimborazo 3, Hang20 Family 2. My take on the day if this is your thing, it is a pure adrenalin rush. I have heard there are back roads to go down that may have been better for us, who knows. If the weather is cold or rainy, go another day—I bet it was a lot better in good weather. As a side note, my family is athletic; my boys are high school athletes, DH is a runner and I workout 4-5x per week. The mountain on this day tested our limits; 3/5 of us could not do it. If you stayed in the pools in Banos too long you are probably dehydrated and are at a higher risk of altitude sickness. If you get sick, the rest of your day will be a waste, mine was. We may have been happier spending another day in Banos or going on to Cuenca or we may enjoy telling this story for years to come. A good story lasts longer than a good time….
    We all went back to the Hacienda Abraspungo and tried to get warm (remember the heating issue?) but the room was cold and our clothes were soaked. Everyone crawled under their covers and tried to get warm. We had a long drive to Cuenca in the morning.

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    That bike ride sounds frightening and hope you enjoyed Galapagos and got warmed up there.

    I'm also following your reports. I think I tried to dissuade you or someone else from staying in Riobamba and now it makes even less sense to have left Banos if that is where the bikes came from!! At least there you could have warmed up after you got back...Oh well, now we have your report to link to when others ask!.

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    Yes mlgb you did recommend not to stay in Riobamba. Our hotel was the most modern we stayed in the highlands, really not a bad place but there was more to do in Banos. Due to some personal circumstances we booked this trip only weeks before we went. Not everything was available but we were fine with what we got.Day 8
    The Road to Cuenca
    I was feeling much better this morning and was excited to get on the road to Cuenca. When we had planned this trip we hoped to leave right from Chimborazo and head to Cuenca. We were told this was not a great idea and this was a better trip in the day light. We are so glad we waited! We all enjoyed this amazing road. There were beautiful towns and scenery. There were steep hillsides covered with bright red poppies—these are regularly raided and burned by the police before they can be harvested for opium. There was a bright blue church hanging on the edge of a cliff in a town maybe named Chunchi. Not far from here we were able to watch the Devil’s Nose Train as it turned around and backed up the mountain to Alausi. We never would have spotted this or stopped for pictures if we did not have Milton. We had left pretty early this morning, hoping to spend the afternoon in Cuenca. As we conversed with Milton, I told him I had heard of an indigenous market that met on Thursday mornings in the town of Guamote. This being a Thursday and the town being not far off our route we all decided to go and see what we could see. This sudden change of plans was one of the most unique experiences our family had in Ecuador!
    Milton drove us into the heart of the market and directed us to the different areas. He stayed with the car, watched our things and arranged a meeting place. The sights, sounds, colors and people were overwhelming. This was clearly a local market and not a place to buy t shirts and blankets. We did not encounter anyone who spoke Spanish, the best I could tell people were speaking Kichwa. The people were not tall but very strong—the first time in my life I towered over everyone! We were the only non indiginos, and the only ones not in native dress. Some eyed us with suspicion, others with curiosity. Two ladies sold us their fresh made (still hot!) sweet pastries. One fierce young woman in a bright red native dress hacked away at a sheep she had just slaughtered and yelled at us when we tried to photograph the scene: the red of her skirt and wrap, her black hair, the white wool of the sheep and the bloody, red cleaver. We understood and respected her “No!” with the wagging finger—she watched us all the way across the market--but we knew that photograph could have been featured in National Geographic! We passed piles of unshucked corn, 30 feet high, being sold for feed. Packs of women many no taller than 4 feet carrying huge sacks of grain (quinoa?) on their backs to be traded and ground to flour at the stone mill on one corner. On the other side of the market, the animal market was so densely packed it was hard to move. Groups of women walked with large sacks filled with live chickens and doves. There were sacks of guinea pigs for sale and huge rabbits being picked up their ears and inspected. All kinds of birds, rodents, goats and sheep were for sale. We watched the people haggle over prices—we didn’t know the words but the back and forth is the same around the world! The men bargained over horses while nearby bulls called out to cows across the stalls that don’t seem strong enough to hold them back. I was glad our things were being watched by Milton and that our jeans and rain jackets made us stand out enough to keep an eye on each other. This was an amazing, eye opening experience. Back at the car, Milton filled in the details about the different groups, their social strata, details about their lives and culture. Everyone asked questions about what we had seen and who these people were. Milton had to stretch his English vocab that day—it was a really neat experience!

    Ingapirica
    Okay so we weren’t going to stop here; we had to make cuts from our plan to fit everything in. We had decided we wanted to see some of the sights in Cuenca. After taking Milton’s advice about Guamote, we took his advice again and detoured to Ingapirica. For those who don’t know Ingapirica is the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador. That is not to say it is anything like Manchu Picchu but it was worth the visit. Part of me thinks the real reason we went here was to pick Milton’s mother up some of the local specialty, quinoa spaghetti, but I am glad we did.
    The weather had been dry and clear at the market and much of the way through the mountains. We were able to see so many mountains, volcanoes and gorgeous valleys the majority of the drive. By the time we reached Ingapirica, our luck had run out. A very cool misty rain was falling but we decided we would take the tour anyways. Our guide was, a local Canari man, the indigenous people who first built this city temple complex. His insights into the tribes, how they interacted, intermarried, warred, prayed and built made the cold rain bearable. He was enthusiastic and he could show us which culture built which structure and why, why this city was built here and how it helped the Inca communicate across their empire. He explained the Incan and Canari symbols found on so many items for sale throughout Ecuador. Meanwhile wild but tagged llamas strolled through the temple ruins with us.
    After the tour we walked to a local place for lunch. There was a warm fire we crowded around while we waited for our meal. There was only one choice, we all took it. Milton had bought some quinoa spaghetti for his mother while we were taking the tour. Knowing I was a vegetarian, he had the proprietor of the small restaurant cook some up for me. Hot tea, hot chocolate and a chicken noodle soup started our meal. I was in the middle of telling my youngest son to eat the chicken when I realized the chicken part of the soup was a foot. My DH had a neck, with a beak, in his. This caused general commotion and picture taking but we were eating local! My most daring eater ate all of his and said it was not bad. The rest of the meal was tipicos, like rice, beans, chicken (various parts but more mainstream!) and plantains and quinoa for me. We all enjoyed the experience and returned to the road rewarmed.

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    Wow, what an experience on Chimborazo! We'll be passing through Riobamba on our way from Latacunga to Cuenca and I think I'll be content to just see the beautiful volcano from a distance.

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    I love your detailed reporting. Sorry to hear you were sick on the day and had had bad weather. I guess we were lucky in that we had been at altitude for several months and found the ascent to the refuge tough, but ok. Many people just took a few steps from the car park and turned back.we had great weather and so enjoyed the bike ride back down (although I did manage to break a brake cable! Thankfully it wasn't until the end of the fast part). Keep it coming!

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    Don't worry jcwiakala most people don't get sick, it was just my bad luck. You can drive to the visitor center if the weather is clear and get a good view.

    Cuenca
    The weather warmed and the land became more green as we worked our way to Cuenca. Here we said goodbye to Milton and felt that we would truly miss his company. His 14 years experience of driving the bus across Ecuador made him knowledgeable and dependable. His compassion made him a friend. We would have different driver and guide for the next leg of our journey. We checked into our hotel, the Posada del Angel, took a while to explore this beautiful city.
    Cuenca has a reputation as a haven for expats from the US and Canada. It is easy to see why. We stayed in the older part of town near the cathedral. I read somewhere that “Like Venice or Barcelona, Cuenca is a place you can just simply walk around and take in its character.” True. We wondered the cobblestone streets, visited the flower markets in the plaza in front of the churches. We marveled at the palm trees here versus the snow only a day before. We stopped in one of the many sweet shops and bought pastries. We watched a tour bus struggle to navigate the tight turns in the old town cobblestone streets, then watched another take a turn at full speed, ram the parked car already there and keep going as if nothing had happened. (So glad it was not our rental car!)
    Posada del Angel was built in a Spanish style like many places in Cuenca. It looks plain and maybe uninviting on the outside but inside it opens to a central dining room that many of the rooms overlook. There are couches and seating on the second level for people to gather and visit. There was a large tour group of maybe high school students staying here when we were here. They congregated just outside my sons’ room and cut up like kids will do. I could hear them loud and clear from my room that was better placed in the corner. I had to ask them several times to quiet down and finally shooed them off after 11. The doors are very thin –don’t get me wrong this is a quaint very friendly hotel. We ate dinner here and I think everyone had a good meal (I had quinoa ravioli with pesto). Our room had a balcony that opened to the street. I enjoyed the view and watching all the people go by but it was loud from street traffic and from the kids who were in front of our rooms because they did not want to keep their tired traveling mates awake(!). We had good meals here, the staff was super nice and helpful. Our rooms were big, our clothes, especially our shoes, stayed wet. Sigh.

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    Wow! What a ride! My husband debated doing the bike ride, and decided to skip.

    Altitude sickness seems so random. Been to high altitudes a lot and never had an issue until last year. Last winter at Black Sheet not far from Quilotoa at a mere 10,000 ft I got altitude sickness. I didn't feel great at dinner and in the middle of the night had all the classic symptoms. It was esp strange since a few days before we were in Quito and I was fine.

    Enjoying your adventure.

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    jcwiakala Cuenca was beautiful. Go get lost there! Enjoy the sweet shops, bakeries, flower markets and the charm. Our driver pointed out a group of high rise condos--very nice and new but surrounded by high walls and barbed wire--the called them Yankee-Land (like Disneyland.) We were more in the Old City.


    Day 9
    This morning we were up early to tour the cathedral. The New Cathedral opened first; we went to try to do a tour and mass was getting started so we decided to stay. We all were pretty meditative after mass; there is something very comforting in sharing rituals with people from another part of the world that you have been doing your whole life. Going to communion, offering strangers the sign of peace, saying the Our Father in Spanish; it was not an experience I expected but it was very powerful. After mass, we did the tour that took us through the church, in the crypt and finally to the towers that overlooked the city. It is worth doing the tour, even in halting English (we joined the English tour) just to get the view of the colonial city from the rooftop. Cuenca is beautiful, very European and surrounded by mountains. As we left the cathedral, there was a protest going on the in main square between the two cathedrals. I believe it was about rights of indigenous peoples but when police in riot gear lined up around the edges of the march we figured it was time to leave. We had hoped to spend more time in Cuenca but we made stops on the way here the day before that had used up our Cuenca time. We headed back to the hotel to meet our new drivers and out to see El Cajas National Park.
    Our new drivers were Eddie, our English speaking guide and Rene, our driver. We were told El Cajas like many national parks in Ecuador require a guide. They would take us to El Cajas National Park and then on the Guayaquil where would fly out the next day. It is about 45 minutes from Cuenca to El Cajas. Nice drive but as you gained altitude the weather again got wetter and cooler. We decided to go on a hike that Eddie suggested then see if we were up for more or head on to Guayaquil. They had been flexible picking us up later than our original plan so we ended up with less time in El Cajas.
    The mountains in El Cajas serve as the most westerly continental divide in South America, some of the water here flows all the way across the continent to the Atlantic, some goes right down to the Pacific. Our hike here was like something out of The Hobbit or the Scottish Highlands: stony, foggy hillsides covered with rough vegetation leading to lakes. The mossy ground was springy when you stepped on it and other times a mud bog would appear we would have to work around. Eddie told us about all the flora and fauna we saw, including a shrub that grows there about 200 years old. There was a constant misty rain and a pretty steady wind. It was beautiful but would be totally different on a sunny day. We had seen evidence of wild llamas but not seen them. We took a sudden turn on the path and there was the herd of maybe 10 of them. Only one had been tagged. I was a little behind our group and luckily had the camera. They all ran up the path within feet of me—the biggest one coming closest to me, staring me down with eyes and almost bumping me with his white shaggy body—warning me off his herd? Probably not a big deal if you are from the area but a thrill for me!
    We could have gone on another hike but we were hungry, tired, cold, and very muddy. Eddie and Rene took us a place where we had a prearranged for lunch as part of the tour. I can’t be certain but it was probably the Hosteria Dos Chorreras. We felt waaay too dirty to be in this nice place! Lunch was huge—I think it was a preset meal where you could choose chicken or fish for $7.50. The advantage of having teenage boys is that months later they can remember EXACTLY what they ate: a hot drink cinnamon drink for starters, potato/ quinoa soup, a salad, pesto trout (or chicken) with beans, rice and plantains, and a dessert maybe tiramisu. Drinks were included. There was no one else in the restaurant and we had a very long lunch where we were intensely questioned by Eddie and Rene. They both wanted to know why we chose Ecuador, why the people of the U.S. had chosen the candidates they had for president and how the political picture differed in Ecuador from the U.S. How we would feel about interracial marriage for our boys, how we felt about the Catholic church and how it was viewed in Ecuador etc etc. I am not sure I have had conversations this intense with my own family and friends! Everything Eddie said was translated for Rene. Who asked his own questions. We probably spent as long at lunch as we did in the park. I’m not sure which was more eye opening!
    After our long lunch, we drove to Guayaquil. The terrain was beautiful and varied. From the cool mountain terrain the banana plantations were a huge change. When we arrived in Guayaquil, we were instructed to have everything secure and not give our bags to anyone our drivers did not approve first. They had told us where to go if we left our hotel and how to do it. I guess crime is pretty bad here and it there was a huge Independence Day celebration that weekend in town. In the end we just checked into our very modern hotel and regrouped for our early morning flight. We didn’t even go out to dinner because of our huge lunch. There were boxed breakfasts for us and a driver who took us to the airport very early.

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    What a lovely and so detailed trip report-Thank you! We are heading to Ecuador in June, and can't decide whether to rent a car or use a private driver for two reasons-cost and not wanting to feel rushed. Based on your experiences, I think we may need to rethink renting a car!

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    This has been so fun to read! Thank you for the virtual trip. I am starting to plan a trip to Ecuador for our family for next year and our kids will be 12 and 14 at that time, so this couldn't be more perfect! You have inspired me to expand our itinerary - Cuenca in particular sounds sooo charming. Maybe I missed it but do you mind explaining how you found such great drivers and particularly ones that were willing to drive you so far afield? I have used them before but only in cities or small excursions outside of a city, so this is new to me. Looking forward to hearing about the islands!

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    Thank you for your kind replies. I have been using other forum to plan this summer's trip and it inspires me to finish mine! I will add more about the Galapagos part of our trip soon.

    We found our drivers through Happy Gringo travel. We had a very good experience with all of them and with Happy Gringo overall. I can't remember how I stumbled on them (Happy Gringo) but I read a lot of reviews before I used them and when I talked to them they were the most flexible and helpful. Our trip was totally customized to us.

    As far as driving, the actual roads were mostly fine. Quito and parts of Cuenca were crazy and I don't think I would have liked to drive in either. Certainly not in Guayaquil. My husband grew up on the East Coast of the US so he can be a more aggressive driver than I but I would not like the driving. Beyond that I would not have known where to get gas, where to go to the bathroom, what was safe and where to not stop and talk to people. It was surprising to me that we probably were more immersed in the culture by having drivers than driving ourselves. I would not have thought this was the case but we tried foods we would not have tried, stopped places we wouldn't have stopped, took little side tours for the best view of this or that, and learned a ton along the way. Our drivers were very flexible when we changed plans and it wasn't like they charged us more when we did. We did tip, every day. They were worth every penny!

    Cuenca is far but beautiful. The ride there may be better than the actual town. If prices would have been good I might have tried to fly a leg in or out of Cuenca to avoid the drive to Guayaquil. (For example fly into Cuenca, do our trip backwards to Quito, fly from Quito to Galapagos.) It was much more expensive for our trip but might work for someone else. That being said our day with Eddie was enjoyable and educational.

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