So far in Ecuador we had checked out the bustling market of Otavalo, explored the old colonial streets of the capitol city, Quito, and spent an amazing three days exploring Cotopaxi National Park with some relaxation time at the Secret Garden. Next on the agenda was a few nights in Baños where we got to meet up with a good friend of ours.
From Cotopaxi it was an easy four-hour trip down to Baños, where our dear friend Jess Wajda was awaiting our arrival. Jess had been traveling in Peru for the previous month or so, and we figured it would be a shame to be traveling South America at the same time and not meet up. It had been forever since we had last seen her, or any of our friends for that matter, so we were psyched to explore Baños together. From what we had heard, there was no shortage of activities to partake in while visiting Baños, so we got right to it on the first day, visiting one of the many public hot springs that are near by the town.
We opted to visit El Salado hot spring pools based on some reviews we had heard from fellow travelers. When we arrived, we were a bit surprised to find the hot springs to be more like a series of public pools you might find in the projects of any large city, but filled with hot mineral water from the underground springs. It’s not as though we didn’t enjoy our hot mineral bath, we did, but I guess we were hoping for hot spring pools of the more natural variety. More like the ones tucked in trees and built from stones with a flow of water from a nearby hot spring filling them up.
El Salado had about five different pools varying in temperature, as well as one cold water pool for those cold dips in between soaks. This place had no natural feel to it and would have looked like a skate park if the pools had been empty. From what we had heard, the other options that were near to the town were all very similar and even more crowded. So, instead of visiting those, we chose to do some research and find something a little more impressive for our next hot baño in Baños.
The town sits at the base of a valley with a large volcano rising up behind it. To find what we were looking for, we had to venture up the mountain a ways to the more elite, and a bit more expensive hot spring experience at Luna Vulcan Adventure Spa. This place was unreal and absolutely worth the twenty bucks it cost to enjoy it. It’s too bad we were broke backpackers, because an overnight stay would have been amazing. Instead we had to settle for a few hours of hot tubing on a cliff-side, sipping on tropical fruit smoothies in our swim caps with the pools all to ourselves. Not bad for broke backpackers.
Since we had ventured to the top of the mountain, it was customary to get our photo on the swing at the end of the world. If you follow any travelers on Instagram, you would know what I am talking about. It’s one of those photos like a hiker in front of Rainbow Mountain in Peru or like the ones where the person is holding up the leaning tower of Pisa. We assumed that there was only one swing, but it turns out the whole swing at the edge of a cliff thing is quite popular in Baños, and the rest of Ecuador for that matter. The original is set up on a large tree that sits at the edge of a deep valley with a tree house up top and swings on either side. You start your swing atop a large concrete ramp and with the assistance of a local, you swing out over the edge of the valley with nothing but air below you. Some of the newer swings that have been built in the footsteps of the original are even bigger and more intense, so much so that you need to be harnessed in for the ride. The original was plenty of thrill for the three of us, and we walked away happy with our Instagram-able photos.
Another one of our action-packed days began with jumping off of a bridge first thing in the morning. It wasn’t a bungee jump, more of a straight free fall into a canyon while attached to a standard climbing rope. When your free-fall reached the end of the rope, you get whipped below the bridge and swing through the canyon at lightning fast speed, back and forth while slowly getting lowered to the bottom. Linds decided against it, leaving Jess and I to question our decision while we got strapped in.
I don’t know what was scarier, the jump and swing itself, or just the act of paying some guy on a bridge twenty bucks to tie you to a rope, then standing on the edge of the rickety platform gazing down at the raging river 150 meters below!
Afterwards we found a cafe where we could chill out for a few to let our nerves settle down before continuing our days adventure. We had rented some bikes and were headed towards the Ruta de Cascadas, where you bike downhill through the valley for 30 kM’s, stopping at seven waterfalls along the way. I don’t know if it was rainy season or if they just set expectations low, but we must have seen at least 12-14 waterfalls throughout the day. Some we just admired from across the valley, others we parked our bikes and took some short hikes up the bases. Some of them were surrounded by touristy activities like zip-lines or those big cliff-side swings, but we had enough extreme adventure for one day with the bridge jump and decided to pass on any of that.
Our ride concluded at the largest, and most impressive of the waterfalls, Pailon del Diablo. After paying the entrance fee and hiking down into the deep valley, you can view the falls from the suspension bridge that spans the valley. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can climb up alongside of the powerful waterfall and crawl through a couple caves that eventually lead you to a small platform directly behind the rushing water. Definitely one of the more unique waterfall experiences we have seen along the way.
Biking 30 kM’s back up to the town is an option for those related to Lance Armstrong, but we were happy to toss our bikes in the back of a collectivo truck and hitch a ride back to town. Upon arriving, my first destination was back to my favorite arepa stand, Arepas To Go. During our 4 days in Baños, I ate there four times, and I wish I had eaten more. The Venezuelan style arepa was one of the most delicious food items I have had on the entire trip. I feel like I’ve said that a handful of times, but when it’s all said and done, I would be surprised if this spot didn’t end up as number one on my list. The fluffy, almost mashed potato like arepa was fried to perfection with a crispy golden-brown crust, then split open and filled with the seasoned meat of your choice, and if you wanted, add some tomato, avocado, or hands down the best cheese in Ecuador. Top it off with their homemade hot sauces and oh man, mouthwatering goodness.
Our time with Jess flew by, as four days tend to do, and it was tough to say goodbye. She was on her way to the Galapagos Islands, which were a bit out of our budget for this trip. We were heading slightly west of Baños to begin a three-day trek, commonly known as the Quilotoa Loop.
The Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop is a common three- or four-day trek that leads you through beautiful valleys in rural Ecuador and ends at the stunning Quilotoa Crater Lake. With the time that we had, and our level of interest in hiking for consecutive days, we decided on the three-day trek, starting in the tiny mountain village of Insilivi. Arriving at the town was most certainly half the battle.
Going into the day, my internet research told me that being an extremely rural farm town deep in the valleys of central Ecuador, there was only one bus that takes you to Insilivi each day. If you miss it, you are stuck taking private transport for way too much money. Since we were traveling there on a Saturday, to add more confusion, the bus option didn’t leave from the normal location in Latacunga. Instead, we had to get to the Saturday market in Saquisili and find the bus from there.
My internet research was only able to get us so far that day. As we were asking around, every cab driver told us that there were no buses to Insilivi on Saturdays, period. We eventually entered a cab and I told the driver that he must be wrong, because the internet never lies(…). Either he truly didn’t know about the bus from Saquisili, or he was trying to scam us into paying for the expensive ride to Insilivi. Either way, we were finally on our way to the market in Saquisili and had only minutes to catch our would-be bus. Once there, I was able to ask around and finally got pointed in the right direction, arriving at the bus just two minutes before it departed! It was filled with indigenous locals who come down to the Saturday market to stock up on everything they need for the week. We were the only gringos, and I must say, it felt like the most local experience we have had on the trip.
When we finally arrive in Insilivi, the stress of the day immediately melted away as we were received at our accommodations at Llullu Llama Mountain Lodge. This place was incredible, consisting of a handful of newer Puebla style cottages scattered among the bright flower gardens. It had a similar vibe as the Secret Garden Cotopaxi. Meals were included, and all served family style as you got acquainted with other travels that were beginning their trek of the Quilotoa Loop. We decided to splurge for the night and booked ourselves a private cottage room with a chiminea, small patio, and an incredible view out over the lush green valley.
Leaving the next day was difficult to say the least. We were excited for the trek, but another night at Llullu Llama would have been a blessing. Once again, we were tied down to our fast track schedule we chose to take, so we made our piece with only spending one night at this remote paradise.
It didn’t take long to forget all about it though. We began the trek and were greeted with some of the most breathtaking landscapes you could imagine. I knew the Ecuadorian countryside was going to be impressive, but it honestly blew my mind. It seemed around every turn the view was more impressive than the last. Bright green valleys with farmland on the hillsides in the distance, colorful wild flowers skirting the river beds, llamas, cows, sheep and horses all roaming freely, it was truly majestic.
Even with the number of travelers hiking the loop, it seemed we were the only people in sight. Occasionally we would cross paths with a hiker or two, but for the most part, it was just us and the Ecuadorian wilderness. On day one we hiked for six hours, ending in the town of Chugchilán and taking up accommodations at the Cloud Forest Hostel. Once again, meals were included and served family style. We had another private room with its own chiminea, and couldn’t ask for anything more.
The second day of hike brought about more of the same beautiful countryside and awe-inspiring landscapes. The hike was a bit more challenging on day two, mostly due to the ascent up to the rim of the crater lake, but the juice was most certainly worth the squeeze. There is nothing quite like pushing yourself and your body to the limit, to a point of almost wondering why you are doing what you are doing, and then being confronted with the answer that makes you forget about any struggles you had. Quilotoa Crater Lake did just that. We were exhausted, dealing with aches and pains from trekking with our heavy packs, and were ready to be done. We arrived at that view at the exact moment we needed to. Simply stunning.
Once we reached the crater, it was still an hour hike around the rim to the town of Quilotoa where we would be spending our last night. At that point, whether you were exhausted or in pain, each time you looked down at the lake you couldn’t resist feeling accomplished and complete. We shopped around for a good hostel when we arrived in the town, ending up at Hostal Chukirawa, and spent the rest of the day lounging around and letting our bodies recover. Everything was great, except for the fact that it was absolutely freezing in the common area where we were lounging, which wasn’t ideal, but nothing a shared hammock and a heavy blanket couldn’t fix.
Like all the hostels on the loop, our accommodations included another big dinner and quality breakfast, which was such a nice treat along the way. After a good night sleep in our private room with our own little chiminea to keep us warm, we got to spend one more morning admiring the lake before setting off on our way. The sunrise was a bit cloudy, but the sky broke just enough for some light to shine through and give us one more glimpse of yet another natural wonder found in South America.
From there, we would be making our way back to Quito for an evening to regroup before heading the opposite direction. Our next and final destination in Ecuador was deep in the Amazon for a four-night jungle tour!
If you are reading this and are thinking about doing the Quilotoa Trek, I highly recommend reading through the blog posts from Along Dusty Roads that provide you with everything you need to know. Click HERE for more info.
After doing loads of online research trying to find the best deal for a jungle tour, we settled on a four-day three-night adventure in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, with accommodations at the Caiman Lodge. To get started, we had to take an overnight bus from Quito to a small town on the edge of the Amazon Basin called Lago Agrio. From there, another shuttle took us to the edge of the Aguarico River, where we then hopped on a long wooden river canoe that motored us two hours into the jungle to the lodge. Talk about feeling disconnected.
The lodge was tucked away in the deep jungle, only accessible by boat, and was one of what seemed to be many lodges around the basin. There were four structures on the property, three for housing and one for dining, along with a hammock laden common area. Each wood structure had palapa roofs and open windows with only mosquito screens separating us from all the flying jungle creatures. Pretty much exactly how I pictured it.
Even with a handful of lodges in the area, you couldn’t actually see any of them among the dense jungle, so the feeling of being completely secluded was intact. In fact, the only time we really saw other people was each evening for sunset when boats from all the lodges took the guests out to the middle of the big lagoon for a sunset swim and some paddle boarding.
Beyond our sunset swim in the lagoon every evening, our days were all jam packed with jungle adventures. The first evening, most of our greatest fears were put to the test when they took us out for a night walk through the jungle to see what we could find. What we found was a slew of the biggest and scariest spiders and insects you have ever seen. Big hairy tarantulas, long skinny wolf spiders, and a big range of smaller, colorful, and oddly shaped arachnids. We even spotted some tree frogs and an evil looking scorpion.
The next night we took the boat out and went on a hunt to find caimans (amazon alligators) and jungle snakes. Being at the edge of the wet season, the water levels were so high that spotting caimans was rare, but we did have some luck with jungle snakes. We came upon an Amazon Tree Boa that was about 7-feet long with a yellowish green body and reddish orange diamond patters up and down its back. It was definitely one of the coolest wild animals I have ever seen.
One of our days consisted of a visit to a local amazon jungle community where they showed us how to make yucca bread and taught us a bit about the jungle culture. Crazy to think that there are a whole bunch of these villages throughout the Amazon Basin in South America, some so secluded they still have not interacted with the outside world. The one we visited was a two-hour boat ride into the deeper jungle, and obviously being part of this tour, the village is not as disconnected, but you certainly get a feel for what it can be like.
It was during our boat rides that we would spot the majority of the animals we saw during the trip. Monkeys were the most common, as we saw five or six different species ranging from the small squirrel monkey to the big hairy monk saki monkey. I can’t even remember all the different birds we saw, but I do recall spotting some toucans, and I was super excited when we got to see the blue and yellow macaws. We got lucky and saw the Amazon Basin staple anaconda snake not once but twice. The ones we saw were babies, which is crazy because they were still about five inches thick and maybe eight or nine feet long!
I couldn’t imagine seeing one of the monster twenty footers, insane! Of course, a trip to the Amazon Jungle wouldn’t have been complete without a siting of the Amazonian pink river dolphin. Yeah, that’s right, pink river dolphin, who knew? It was impossible to get a photo of them, but they looked like bottle nose dolphins but with long, skinnier snouts and a pink hue to their skin. All-in-all, we saw lots, and were fortunate to have seen some of the more rare animals that we encountered.
In the four days there was certainly no shortage of exotic animal sightings, but it was the final day and I was determined to track down a brightly colored frog. We had seen some big tree frogs already, but nothing like those bright green, red and blue ones you see in those natural geographic type photos. I figured we had a good shot at finding one on the last day since we were going on a jungle hike, but turns out they are harder to find then I expected. We hiked for about three hours through the dense jungle and had no luck. Although I was a bit disappointed, a rainy-day hike through the deep Amazon jungle was plenty to clear any bit of disappointment. I was left with nothing but smiles to end our four-day amazon adventure, and maybe a small mission to track down a colorful frog at some point in my life…
On the two hour boat ride back to civilization, we were lucky enough to see another couple of blue and yellow macaws perched high above the river. It’s hard to say which of the animals we saw was my favorite, but I can say that seeing blue and yellow macaws flying around the jungle was an extremely unique experience, and one I will never forget. If given the opportunity, I would revisit the amazon jungle in heartbeat. Maybe next time it will be in the deepest parts of Brazil, who knows!
We Follow the Lines Going South!
For now, it was time for us to move on. Ecuador wasn’t even on our original agenda, but we are both extremely grateful that it ended up there. We had an incredible time, and now we were ready to keep pressing though. The plan now was to fly down south to Santiago Chile and work our way north from there. For our first stop in southern South America; Mendoza Argentina! Bring on the malbec and fat steaks!