We spent just over five weeks in Colombia, a bit more time than we had planned, but we loved it. By the time we crossed into Ecuador, it was already the end of March, and we needed to decide on our next few months of travel. Originally, we planned to make it to Southeast Asia and finish our adventure there, but since the time we had left was sort of limited, we chose to spend the rest of our travel time within South America. The decision we needed to make now was whether we wanted to spend our time casually traveling through two countries or moving a bit more rapidly through five.
While our favorite way of travel is slow paced and casual, we decided we wanted to see as much as possible of South America while we were there. So, we chose to move on a tighter timeline from place to place so we could fit it all in. We gave ourselves just under three weeks for Ecuador and were blown away by the country in that time. It quickly climbed high on the list for a return trip at some point down the line, considering we didn’t even visit the famed Galapagos Islands.
Our first destination was a few hours past the Colombian border, at a little city called Otavalo. The town is most famous for its large colorful market that occurs every Saturday which is said to be the largest outdoor market in South America. Being on our tight timeline, we didn’t have much of an option for which day we would be there, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to experience the market at its peak. Instead, we were there on a Wednesday, and regardless, the main plaza was still jam packed with stalls housing vendors and their assorted artisan crafts.
Of course, it was extremely difficult for us to meander through all this great stuff and not buy anything, so we decided we would just box some stuff up and mail it home. We figured since the stuff was so cheap, the cost of mailing it home on top of everything would still be a bargain. I am not at liberty to say what we got since some of our readers may be receiving a gift, and I would hate to spoil the surprise, but I will say we did get some cool stuff.
Beyond the bustling market, Otavalo is known for the nature that surrounds the town. There are a slew of hikes and nature preserves close by, with a couple crater lakes and some beautiful scenery. We didn’t partake in any of the great outdoors this time around, but we did make one excursion outside of the city to visit the Condor Preserve that was nearby.
A cheap ten-minute taxi ride took us up one of the surrounding mountains through a bunch of farmlands to the preserve. Now, we are both not typically into zoo’s or preserves that cage animals, but this place wasn’t just caging birds for show. They actively work to rescue birds from illegal black-market animal trade and private zoo’s that are apparently a bit of a problem down in South America. It shocked me to hear that there is a problem with that sort of thing down there, but when you think about the massive number of exotic animals that call South America home, and the amount of filthy rich people out there that are interested in having exotic animals as illegal pets, I guess it makes sense. Twice daily, they put on a free show featuring the assorted birds of prey they house at the facility. Even though it was a touristy show, it was cool getting up close and personal with some of these rare owls, hawks, and the Bald Eagle.
On our journey back from the park, we made another stop along the way to visit the Sacred Tree of Otavalo. “El Lechero”, as they call it, is over 300 years old and legend has it that a young indigenous couple was forbade to see each other due to conflict between their families. The boy, with the help of the gods, went to the top of the hill and transformed himself into the tree, and the girl cried until her tears were transformed into the lake that the tree looks out over, leaving them inseparable for all eternity.
It was a nice introduction to Ecuador, but we were now on the clock with a tight plan over the next two and a half weeks. Our nest stop was to be Quito, Ecuador’s capitol, and largest city.
Even after reading about it, I was surprised at how massive Quito was. When we arrived, we were dropped at the northern bus terminal only to discover we were still a few miles away from our accommodations in the Centro Historico district. The public transportation buses seemed to be well marked, so we decided to try our hand at that, not thinking about the fact that it was 5:30pm local time, peak rush hour.
So far throughout Central and South America, the general population has been extremely polite when it came to interacting while on public transportation. On buses and subways everywhere, seats open when an elderly man or woman gets on board. People have been patient and kind, even when conditions got uncomfortably hot or jam packed. This was not the case in Ecuador. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Granted we were experiencing it for the first-time during rush hour, but it was a bit out of control.
The bus that pulled up was a triple, connected by those accordion looking joints, with doors just like any subway car. When the doors opened, everyone on the platform made there move, jamming through the doorway five at a time with no regard for anyone, literally pushing and squeezing through the entrance as though they were desperately escaping from some unknown danger. We just stood back and let the madness ensue, and simply stepped through the doors when the mad dash was over.
When it came time to get off, things didn’t go so smoothly. We were in the middle car, and it turned out that at our stop, only the front car doors opened. So, there we were, huge packs on our backs, day packs strapped to our fronts, and me with a big bag of textiles we purchased in Otavalo, trying to push through to the front car, and no one is moving. The isles of the bus were jam packed, and no effort is being made to help us get off. At this point I was done being polite; if we were going to get off the bus, we had to do as the Romans do. With that, I lowered my shoulder a bit, didn’t make eye contact with anyone, and plowed through the crowd, squishing and pushing anyone aside in my wake.
As I expected, my methods seemed to be acceptable, as though this was the way people got off the bus on any given day. That is with the exception of the woman holding the baby that just wouldn’t get out of the way. I may have made a baby cry that day, which I will admit was not my finest moment, but what can I say, she shouldn’t ‘ave been standin’ there!
As for exploring Quito, we were using the city as a hub for our travels in Ecuador, spending 1-3 nights there three separate times. During that time, we did our typical city exploring; walking around the historic district, admiring the cobble stone streets and old cathedrals, and visiting the different unique cafes and restaurants we found along the way. The highlight was a visit to the Metropolitan Cathedral, where you can climb up into the tall steeples and get amazing panoramic views of the city.
While exploring these foreign cities has been great, it can sometimes get a little expensive. Having good accommodations where you don’t mind hanging out or having a nice kitchen to cook your own meals is important. In Quito, we found what may be our favorite hostel we have ever stayed in, at least for a hostel within a city.
Masaya Hostel had it all. Tons of common space to hang out, including a fantastic outdoor courtyard with bean bags under the shady trees, as well as a restaurant and bar that had delicious and affordable food. Most of the time, when a hostel has a bar and restaurant, they don’t have a common kitchen and don’t let you drink your own alcohol. Not the case here, they offered the best of both worlds. To top it all off, the beds in the dorms were cubby style, each with its own curtain for privacy, outlets & lights, and plenty of shelf space for your stuff. And the showers, oh man those showers…could be the best in South America! Sounds like small things I’m sure, but it’s those little comforts you end up missing most when doing this hostel travel for so long.
During one of our three stops in the city, we were fortunately enough to cross paths with our friend Ashlee whom we had met on the sailing trip to Colombia. She was on a similar path as us for a week or so and we were able to sync up for some good times. First, she took us to this Indian restaurant in Quito, Sher E Punjab, that fulfilled a craving I didn’t even know I had. I don’t know if not Indian food in such a long time had contributed, but I think it was one of the best Indian meals I’ve ever had. One of the best things about visiting larger cities, as much as you want to be sampling the local cuisine, they tend to have the best restaurants of all types of foreign foods.
For our next stop in Ecuador, the three of us would be heading south into Cotopaxi National Park. It was Lindsey’s birthday, and I had kept her in the dark leading up, hoping to surprise her with a super unique visit to the Secret Garden Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi National Park
I didn’t really intend on it being a surprise, but I found out about Secret Garden Cotopaxi and just so happened to book a three day stay over Lindsey’s birthday. I didn’t mention it to her at first for no particular reason, but then the mystery seemed perfect for a traveling birthday, so decided to just keep her in the dark. Everything we are doing is pretty unforgettable, so I figured the only way to make a birthday stand out was to make it a surprise. I would say it was effective.
The Secret Garden offers a three-day two-night package that includes a choice of housing onsite, three meals per day, and two guided hikes of the surrounding area. You also have the option to extend your stay and take on other hikes and excursions if you so desired. The package itself was cool enough to be a great birthday surprise, but what made it super special was spending two nights in one of the Hobbit huts they had built into the mountainside. I had seen pictures of these once in a travel magazine, but I think they were in New Zealand somewhere. Secret Garden had dug two of their own into their hillside, each with an incredible view of the massive Cotopaxi volcano from the bed inside.
With three days, and only two activities on the agenda, we were able to hike the first & last day and keep the second day free for simply hanging out at the Secret Garden. Between chilling in the Hobbit hut, reading books in a hammock in front of the fire, or soaking in the hot tub, there was plenty to keep us busy. Even using the bathrooms gave you something to look forward too. Both the shower and the toilet had windows looking out to the valley with Cotopaxi’s snow-capped peak towering above. You will have to excuse me for being a bit vulgar, but it ranks up there with one of the best poops I have ever taken.
Since everyone who visits Secret Garden come on the same or similar package, there is a retreat like vibe to the whole experience. Everyone eating family style for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, going on hikes together, and relaxing or playing games together each night. It’s a special place that I would recommend to anyone traveling to Ecuador. Even the food was impressive compared to most multi-day tours you go on. Not to mention all you can eat Banana bread, yum!
We opted to stick with the two included hikes, one of which was the first day where the group hikes two hours or so through one of the valleys to a couple of beautiful waterfalls. The day we went it happened to be raining, but that mixed with the mossy trees draped over head as we trudged through the shallow river made it a great experience. Unfortunately, the rain and wind made it way too cold for me to decide to strip down and take a dip at the waterfalls. While it looked like fun, I just couldn’t face the cold and take the polar plunge.
We got lucky for our second hike of the Pasochoa volcano on the last day. It had been cloudy each day, but the skies cleared a bit for our hike, giving us great views of Cotopaxi and the surrounding mountains. The hike itself was moderate but felt a bit more difficult at the summit with the altitude making you gasp for air more than usual. It was only 4220 meters, or 13,845 feet, so nothing compared to the neighboring Cotopaxi, but an adjustment none the less.
If we had more time, we would have loved to extend our stay and maybe even take on one of the other hikes. Summiting Cotopaxi was out of the question considering our clothes were barely warm enough for a fall night in the northeast, let alone braving the icy temperatures at 19,347 feet. There was a different Cotopaxi hike that sounded cool though, where you climbed up the base of the glacier and then mountain biked down to the base camp. As cool as it sounded, we had made our decision to move quickly through Ecuador, so instead it’s on the list for when we return to Ecuador someday!
For now, it was onto Banos for a four night stay before taking on the three-day trek of the Quilotoa Loop.