We flew to Ecuador with five different airlines:
Traveling and driving around Ecuador was easier than we thought. The major roads (especially the main highway E-35 called "Troncal de la Sierra" or Panamericana) are large in the most parts and very well maintained. The roads that take to big towns like Baños and Guayaquill are also good, but sometimes very windy and it is recommended to drive slow because you can meet everything on the street (especially animals but also a lot of people walking).
Car rental: we booked and picked up our car directly at Budget Quito (on Av. Eloy Alfano) and dropped it off at Budget Guayaquil airport. We drove a total of about 1300 km in a week, and while the charge for the little Chevy something they gave us was quite modest, we decided to extend our insurance coverage to all kinds of accidents, because apparently it is very common to be involved in one of them -so we ended up paying almost the double, but with a peace of mind.
Being all major attractions on continental Ecuador above 2000 mt on the sea level, you will definitely feel the altitude wherever you go. For us it was just a matter of some shortness of breath (especially if you walk fast) and a little dizziness on the first day. Just give yourself some time to rest during the first days and you will be soon acclimated!
As for the weather, the temperatures in Ecuador obviously don't range much and seasons are almost not existent, but the high elevation makes the climate pretty much always mountain-like. Therefore if you have the sun and 16-18 C degrees you’ll be wearing a t-shirt and probably hot, while at night (which falls early, before 6 o’clock) it feels chilly immediately -also, there’s no heating anywhere, so even hotel rooms have the same temperature as outside but fortunately they all usually provide warm blankets. We always had a sweater with us and a rain jacket, and warm socks and a scarf for the wind, especially on the sierra.
We thought the Amazon would be very hot and humid but in fact it wasn’t that bad (better than the summer in Baltimore)... and I regretted not having brought a warmer sweater for the night.
As for the Galápagos, the weather there can change very quickly even within the same range of temperatures (18-24 degrees) so you pretty much have to be equipped with the same gear as for the continent -except of course the option of some short pants and swim suits! I heard that January can be very hot on some parts of the islands while when we were there it was always very pleasant, even though the sea is tougher during our summer than winter.
It is highly recommended to get vaccinated for typhoyd and yellow fevers (and the Ecuador government actually requires it, even though nobody checked our international health passport at the airport). We also got the hepatitis A&B shots and did the prophylaxis for Malaria with Malarone for the Amazon, but once we were there we realized that the amount of mosquitoes (very little) didn’t justify the drug and if you do a good clothing treatment before you leave (with a high Deet spray) and you are careful at sunset with covering your legs and arms, you should be fine.
Our American health insurance covers us for medical emergencies anywhere outside the US, while the credit card reimburses us for all trip interruptions so we didn’t have to buy a specific travel insurance -but the Ecuadorean government highly suggests to have one. My sister bought a general travel insurance with EuropeAssistance that didn’t cost much. For the rental car we bought an extension of the insurance just to be completely safe, as road accidents happen sadly all the time on the roads of Ecuador.
We ate everywhere, even in small, local paradores (small family-owned restaurants on the road), and we never had intestinal problems. Just avoid eating raw fruit that doesn't have peel or drinking tap water and don’t wash your teeth with it -all hotels have bottled water and it’s very easy to get used to always carry one with you.
Food was one of this trip's biggest surprises. The Ecuadorian cuisine is very varied, and ranges from soups, wheat, corn and grain dishes, meat, fish and lots of vegetables, with many options grouped in two main styles: comida costeña (on the coast and the islands) and comida típica (on the sierra). The first one includes mostly seafood dishes like the wonderful ceviche, fried tilapias in the Amazon or brujos (scorfano) and langostas (lobster) on the Galápagos. While on the sierra you can eat all kinds of potatoes dishes like the locro de papas (soup), the llapingachos (lie gnocchi, often filled with cheese), lomo de carne or chuletas de cerdo (steak or pork chops), seco de chivo (a stew), fritadas and hornados (pork-based dishes) and all kinds of tostados, tortillas and emapanadas. A very typical and delicious pastry is la emapanada de viento, a fried dough filled with cheese and sparkled with sugar.
But the very king of Ecuador is el cuy asado: guiney pig (most likely roasted)! That you find pretty much everywhere on the street, especially at the markets. Unfortunately we never had the chance to taste it during our trip, and Luigi was very disappointed - while I was told that this animal's meat can carry diseases, so I was fine with it!
Prices for food ranges from very, very cheap (the first day in Quito we had lunch for $8 for all of us!) to moderate and even expensive at the more modern restaurants, but the options, also for non-Ecuadorian food and especially in Quito, Baños, Guayaquill and Cuenca are basically unlimited -as any America city.
Restaurants that we liked:
Quito lays at 2800 mt above sea level, in a beautiful valley surrounded by peaks and volcanos. We decided to stay in the old historic town, which is beautiful preserved and has the wonderful charm of its rich colonial past. The two main squares, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de la Indipendencia, also known as Plaza Grande, rival in beauty and character, even though they're very different. The two churches (San Francisco and La Compañia) are a must see, and so is the little but beautiful Casa dell'Alabado, a museum filled with many pre-colombian artifacts. Nearby is the cobbled street of La Ronda, recently restored and full of restaurants. We also went by taxi to the little hill of El Panecillo where a huge statue of Mary is overlooking the old town.
Going around Old Quito during the day is very safe (the city is full of stores, markets and of local street vendors selling vegetables and clothes), at night it could be a little more quiet but some areas, like La Ronda, have many nice restaurants where to see some nightlife.
The new Quito extends for many kilometers and has very modern and beautiful neighborhoods, like La Mariscál (very touristy, where most of the hostels and restaurants are) next to the huge Parque El Ejdo where la Casa de la Cultura is - and where you should absolutely visit the fantastic new Museo Nacionál. We also walked near La Floresta, where Ecuadorean street food is famous and we went to the Basilica del Voto Nacionál, the main catholic cathedral of Quito with a wonderful view from the top roof. We took the TeleferiQO on the side of the Pichincha volcano, and the view from above is spectacular! Highly recommended.
You can go around Quito easily by taxi: they're everywhere and very cheap -just make sure they are the official license and bargain the price for where you have to go in advance (usually between $1.5 and $5).
GETTING TO THE AMAZON
We had to book our trip to the Cuyabeno Reserve with a local agency called "Happy Gringo", based in Quito. They are specialized in the Amazon (but cover pretty much all Ecuador) and have a wonderful service and a large range of options for hotels and transportation. Unlikely other Amazon regions such as Yasuní and the Napo river, it's impossible to go to Cuyabeno by yourself. We chose to take the night bus from Quito arranged by a private company hired by Happy Gringo, that takes 7 hours to reach Lago Agrio (it leaves around 11 pm and arrives around 6:30 am). Another option would be to fly to Lago Agrio, but it is slightly more expensive and it doesn't save you that much time because they do only one pick up in Lago Agrio a day. From there another small bus picked us up to take us (after an one hour and 45 minutes) to the park's river port where we got on a small motorized canoe that after another two-hour boat ride on beautiful canals reached our lodge (Siona), located less than an hour away from the Colombian border. The transfer was pretty exhausting but happily adventurous and absolutely worthy the long hours. On the way back we left around 9 in the morning and arrived in Quito before 10 pm, where we stayed at Carpe DM hostel that was the starting point of the bus ride, which happened to have really nice, clean rooms for just $25 a night, breakfast included and a very nice view on Old Quito from the upper dining floor!
In Cuyabeno we stayed at the lovely Siona lodge (owned by a private company but run by the local community) which has only 6 bungalows and a fantastic and warm staff. Our guide Neisser was unbelievably prepared (spotting animals and birds only by the sound they make, and telling all kinds of facts on the fauna and flora) and helpful and we did all the nature boat rides and jungle walks with him, along with another family from Germany and a couple from Switzerland. While we were there there was also a group of Americans and Costarican entomologists studying the very special dragonflies of the region, which are considered among the most beautiful in the world. The lodge is facing the Laguna Grande and it's completely surrounded by the water except from one side, where the jungle and the animals are literally coming straight to your door. The rooms were spacious, clean and with a very cute local décor and being an eco-resort the electricity was available only from 6 pm to 10 pm, which made it even more peaceful and idyllic. The second day we visited the main village of the local Siona community, where we spent a day learning about the local people's everyday life, had a demonstration on healing with plants by the shaman and made yucca bread with a very nice woman called Gladys. We also did a night walk in the jungle where we saw tarantulas, snakes and all kinds of insects, and we swam into the lagoon where moments before we saw pink dolphins swimming. We had and mazing experience for the four days in total we were there and we would go back tomorrow if we could!
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We started our Andean trip from la "Mitiad del mundo" (a little north of Quito, very touristy and tacky except the interesting Museo Intiñan, which actually lays and the exact equator line and explains a lot of science phenomenons related to the equator) to Latacunga the first day, where we stayed at the incredible "La Cienega": this splendid hacienda, with its mansion and beautiful park, is one of the oldest in Ecuador and is located right in front of the Cotopaxi. The rooms are all huge and provided with a fireplace, and there is also a nice restaurant that serves a typical Ecuadorian menu. From there we drove up to 3880 mt the amazing Laguna Quilotoa. The road to get there is simply stunning and passes many picturesque Andean villages and markets. The crater and the lake are gorgeous -we hiked to the bottom and then rented donkeys for the way up, for only $10 a person (you can arrange that in the little village overlooking the crater).
From Quilotoa we drove down again to Baños, which is located in a valley that descends towards the Amazon, on the bottom -at 1800 mt- of the very active volcano Tungurahua. In Baños we spent two days, exploring the (very -it's often rainy and foggy) cloud forest on the two sides of the river Pastaza. The famous waterfalls of "Paillon del Diablo" is the main attraction there and it's absolutely worthy a visit. We also did a fun ziplining tour over the gorges at Puntzan, and drove up to the "La casa del arbol", where you can hop on a giant swing perched on the hilltop of the vulcano, with the best view of the valley. The town is a crowded spot for locals and backpackers and it's not particularly pretty if it weren't for the location in that beautiful canyon and the wide range of outdoor/nature activities you can do around it.
From Baños we drove up again to see the Chimborazo volcano (that we completely circumnavigated: the road is amazing!) and after stopping at the entrance of the park at 4450 mt we went down to the lively Riobamba and stayed at the turismo comunitario community (a way to visit the local communities that is becoming increasingly popular in Ecuador and it's very well organized) of Pucara Tambo. Meeting the indigenous people there, visiting the farm and the lamas and alpacas, eating in the community kitchen (where also we got to see a "Cine andino" movie) and sleeping in their typical huts was a lovely experience but very cold (it's at 3200 mt)!
From Pucara Tambo we drove 4 hours between steep valleys and peeks, passing through the colorful village of Alausí (where the famous train track of La Nariz del Diablo starts) and then through the Incas ruins of Ingapirca to reach Cuenca by night (2100 mt).
In Cuenca we stayed at the beautiful Posada dell'Aguila for two nights. The town has a wonderful colonial centre and a very relaxed and cultural atmosphere (with plenty to see, including the main cathedral in the Parque Calderón plaza, next to the flower market and the Museo de la Cathedral Vieja) and it was a very pleasant stop. We also got to visit the Panama hat museum (most Panama hats are manufactured in Ecuador), which was interesting. We then left it to go up again on the Andes to the marvelous Parque Cajas and its small lakes (which resembles like the Scotland highlands, but at 4000 mt!) and then down to Guayaquill (0 mt, on the sea) where we slept at the lovely Hostal Macaw, while we got ready to fly out for the Galápagos the next day. Guayaquill, despite being famous some years ago for the high crime rate, has a new, lively malecón by the river/bay and a pretty historic part at the bottom of the colorful Las peñas neighborhood, next to another new area renovated around the Wyndham hotel, where we had dinner.
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It took us several months of researching before deciding what to do on the Galápagos and especially how to visit them. In the end, we opted for a self organized island-hopping trip rather than a cruise, which is very expensive and doesn't allow you to really experience the islands, apart from the animals and the nature. After the trip ended, we were so happy about our decision -also because the ocean is very rough in the summer, and even if you normally sail by night, the sea motion for 6 days would have been quite challenging. Furthermore, we got to seize a little bit of the island life with its people and we feel we learned so much more about the culture and the history of the -very diverse- community that settled there over last century.
Despite of what the common misconception is, planning an independent trip to the Galápagos is absolutely possibile, although you need to take into consideration various factors and start organizing well in advance, as the park rules are pretty strict and only few sites are completely free to visit without booking a "recorrido" with a naturalist guide.
We started our trip from Baltra, a tiny island north of Santa Cruz where there is only the airport (the greenest in the world), a small cruise boat harbor and a military base. The island is connected to the main island through a small road, a channel (these first two legs of the transfer are part of the same ticket that you pay at the airport) and a longer ride to Puerto Ahora (on the other side of Santa Cruz -around 1 hour away) by bus, or preferably by taxi.
However, since we wanted to begin our Galápagos adventure from Isabela (the easternmost and biggest island of the archipelago) and we wanted to save time in order to see the most islands in the time we had, we decided to take a small 8-seat plane, that in 25 minutes flew us to the little village of Puerto Villamil. Unfortunately that day it was a little cloudy, otherwise the view of the islands and the volcanoes from the plane would have been amazing!
Before boarding your flight to the Galápagos either from Quito, or more commonly from Guayaquill, you have to pay a $20 transit tax/each passenger to the Government of the Galápagos (TCT-Ingala -the office is right next to the check-in counter) while when you arrive in Baltra there is another $100 ($50 for kids) fee to pay to the Galápagos National Park (and at the time we went they accepted only cash).
In ISABELA we had booked a small bed and breakfast owned by Dr. Manuél Pazmiño de la Torre, a very nice gentleman who had also reserved for us the day trip to Los Túneles, the day trip we did in Seymour Norte and the transportation to Floreana. We understand that if you don't use one of the main agencies (only few of them have a website), the best thing is to get in touch with a local who has direct connections with the little local agencies on the islands. Furthermore, we had met online (and then in person in Torino) months before the wonderful Fabio Tonelli, an Italian retired manager who has been living on the Galápagos for 30 years and provided us with all sorts of information and useful tips that helped us immensely to organize our trip. Fabio knew Manuél because they both live half of the year in Isabela, so between the two of them we got the best welcome possible to the island -Fabio even invited us at his house for Ferragosto! From the village you can walk to the main beach where you can find already tons of wildlife -iguanas and sea lions above all, but also frigatebirds and pelicans. Right after dropping our bags at the pension, we went to El Centro de crianza de las tortugas (our first encounter with the giant tortoises) and the magical walk there from the village - you can go there without a guide - offers you an amazing view on the beach and the lagoon, this latter full of flamingos, herons and birds of all kinds besides the ubiquitous iguanas. The atmosphere on the island is very relaxed and apart from a few restaurants on the main dirt road by the beach and a couple of fancy hotels, everything else seems just as real and authentic as a local fisherman community in the middle of the ocean over 600 miles far from the continent could be... The second day we took a boat tour to Los túneles (a wonderful sea lagoon surrounded by lava tunnels that you cannot visit if you are on a cruise, where we hiked and snorkeled with turtles and sharks) and did a 45-minuted bike ride to El muro de las lagrimas on the third day, which was a pena colony and has a wonderful view point, and on the path you can meet dozens of giant tortoises. In the village there are plenty of bike rentals.
We then took a (very expensive because there isn't another option) private boat ride to FLOREANA, which was supposed to be one of the highlights of our trip, being one of the most isolated islands of the archipelago and the location of a very intriguing murder mystery that took place in the 1930's. Two German families, in their quest of finding their heaven on earth, settled on the inhabited island but subsequentially their idyllic though tough life was shaken by the arrival of a third woman, an eccentric Franco-German Baroness, who also decided to colonize the island with her two lovers -this time to open a hotel for wealthy adventurous travelers - but instead mysteriously disappeared after a short while. The story was the subject of the wonderful documentary "The Galápagos affair: when Satan came to eden" (with all original vintage footage shot by a Smithsonian documentarist who visited the island many times at the time of the story. It's available on Netflix) and of several books, including George Simenon's "Hotel del Ritorno alla Natura" or "Ceux de la soif" (in its orginal language -apparently it was never translated into English), that we had read prior to our trip.
Our friend Fabio Tonelli had helped us reserve a room in one of the two hotels of the very tiny village of Puerto Velasco, the frugal but charming Hotel Wittmer, owned by Erika Wittmer, the granddaughter of Margreth Wittmer, which was one of the original German settlers and who is believed to be (spoiler alert!) the murderer of the Baroness and her lover. Her daughter Floreana, now in her eighties, was the first girl born on the island (after her brother Rolf) and she made us dinner that night from her own kitchen! With another small group, we were the only guests of the hotel, which is located on a fantastic black beach where tons of sea lions sleep all day, and our stay there was truly an experience we will never forget. From the hotel, which is a 5 minute walk from the dock where the few "ferries" (in quotation marks because they are carrying 10-15 people at max) you can walk to La Lobería, a beautiful white sand beach surrounded by lava rocks where we had an amazing snorkeling swim and we saw tons of sea turtles and rays!
In order to visit the "highlands" (where Rittmers' and Wittmers' original settlements were -near the only fresh water spring is- an official Galápagos naturalist guide is required, so we had reserved one with the help of Fabio, who needed to return back to Santa Cruz on the same day, since there aren't guides available of Floreana, except the turismo comunitario people (a bunch of local men who live on the island) who can help you just with the transportation to the upper part. We then visited the area near the old volcanoes -which is lushly green as opposed to the dry coastal strip- where there is a very nice tortoises center and El Asilo de la Paz, where you can walk through the small caves where the Wittmers lived, with an amazing view on the other side of the island. In the village there are only two small restaurants and one little tiny bakery, that were not open when we were there so unless the Hotel Wittmer helps you with the lunch, it's really hard to find food.
We traveled to PUERTO AYORA on the main island of SANTA CRUZ by ferry (the cost of the ticket this time was cheaper, only $30 each, because the route is more popular) and right from the moment you set a foot at the harbor you realize how different is this place compared to all other islands on the Galápagos. The town has now almost 20,000 inhabitants and grew exponentially over the last 10 years, since the Galápagos government decided to boost the local tourism on the islands besides the cruises (which are mostly chartered by American companies), and therefore many continental Ecuadoreans moved there in search of business. There are dozens of local travel agencies, private charter boat companies, hotels, pensions, restaurants and shops and the feeling is definitely the one of a major touristic hub, at least in comparison to the other islands we visited, with cars, mini-vans, taxi-trucks and scooters riding everywhere. You can walk pretty much everywhere by foot or take one of the many taxis that for a dollar can take you to the other side of town. We stayed in two different hotels that were pricey for what they offer, and in fact we found all accommodation options on the islands to be in general rather basic and expensive -the second hostel where we stayed, El Castillo, was the poorest of our entire trip.
From Puerto Ayora you can book many day-trips (all local agencies advertise last-minutes offers) but we had reserved months before the unmissable one to SEYMOUR NORTE, which you can reach only with an authorized boat with a naturalist guide. These tours are very expensive but are the only way you can visit the most interesting places in terms of wildlife -also because there is a very low cap on the number of people that can access the island every day. The park authority is very strict on these rules and the entrance limitations are necessary to preserve this incredible nature sanctuary. Our trip to Seymour Norte (the boat name was "Adriana") was well worth the price, because what we saw that day on this tiny island was the quintessential Galápagos experience and both service and food (they cook a very good meal on the boat) on the fancy catamaran were really good. On the way to the island, leaving from the port of the Itabaca canal, we stopped at the gorgeous beach of Las bachas, on the northern coast of Santa Cruz, where you can spot pink flamingos on a small lagoon, along with many birds, and snorkel in the turquoise (though cold) waters where we swam with manta rays, sharks and turtles! Seymour Norte is considered one of the best spots to see red magnificent frigatebirds, the famous blue-footed boobies, but also land and marine iguanas and sea lions -and it didn't fail us. The vegetation is very different from what you see in Puerto Ayora and all around the rocky coast it is also considered one of the best scuba diving site on the Galápagos: in fact we had black tipped sharks swimming under our boat while we were having lunch!
In Puerto Ayora you can't miss -also because they're among the very few free activities that you can do without a guide- the very educational Charles Darwin Research Station (where you can see the embalmed body of the last surviving tortoises of the Pinta islands, Lonesome George, who was considered by many to be the rarest animal on the world) and take a 40-minute walk to Bahia Tortuga, a beautiful beach of soft white sand, unfurling for almost a 1 km, where it's not really safe to swim because of the currents. Nevertheless you can take a dip in the lagoon at the western end of the beach, wrapped in mangroves where many iguanas are usually hanging out.
Don't forget to have at least one dinner at Los kioskos, downtown Puerto Ayora, a feast of fresh fish and a popular spot for all kinds of traverlers and local people.
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First part: Continental Ecuador (Quito, the Amazon and the Andes)
Second part: The Galápagos
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