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Ecuador

Quito – A chilly welcome to Ecuador

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I was surprised by what I was reading on my Kindle. “Set in a picturesque valley some 2,800 meters above sea level, Ecuador’s lofty capital sits just 25km south of the equator. Its historic Old Town is a splendid maze of cobbled streets, colonial architecture and churches, dazzling attributes which helped it become UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site (along with Krakow) in 1978.”, marveled the author in the Independent article about Ecuador I was reading while enjoying my very first cup of scrumptious Ecuadorian hot cocoa.quito hot chocolateThe article made Quito seem like a gem of a city, a town so beautiful that it would sweep me off my feet. The problem was, I just didn’t feel it. I had spent three days in Ecuador’s capital, my first stop on my trip through the country, which is usually enough time to make me fall for a place. But Quito and I, we just didn’t connect.quito viewsI was a bit wary of visiting Quito, after hearing stories of robberies, people throwing feces from church towers to distract you so that they can take your belongings (see here, here, here, and here), and Quito being a bit sketchy all around.quito street artThe cab driver who brought me from the airport to my hotel (a great opportunity to practice my rusty Spanish during the 45-minute ride) put me at ease, however. Quito had gotten much safer over the past few years, he assured me. I had nothing to worry about.Ecuador QuitoAnd so I excitedly took off on my first exploration of Quito, headed straight for the Old Town. And it  was pleasant, yes – I just didn’t think the churches and the architecture that I saw there were ‘dazzling’, and I also wouldn’t call it a ‘splendid maze’. Lofty – yes, I could agree to that, because Quito is, at 9,350 feet (2,850 meters), the second highest capital in the world – only La Paz, Bolivia, is higher. Was I missing something? Upon returning to my hotel, I did some further research to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and through Alex in Wanderland (who also wasn’t the biggest fan of Quito), I learned about a free walking tour.QuitoThe next morning I joined about ten other travelers on a tour of Quito’s Old Town, this time with commentary from a local, and including a few spots that I had indeed missed. Did any of them wow me though? Unfortunately, I still didn’t love the city, but I have to say that I am glad I joined the walking tour because it gave me a much better understanding of the Ecuadorian culture and some insights into the life, history, and politics of the country.QuitoOur guide Andrea took us to the central market for example, where she gave us an introduction to the local fruits, and where I was excited to learn that one of my favorite Colombian fruits, lulo, grew in Ecuador, too, but was known as naranjilla here. Andrea introduced us to several other Ecuadorian specialties, whetting my appetite for the Food Tour the hostel offers once a week for only $10(unfortunately).Ecuador MarketThe walking tour also brought us to my biggest oversight: The bohemian La Ronda neighborhood with narrow cobblestone alleys and colorful houses, which I found more charming than any other part of the city I’d seen so far.La Ronda QuitoBut even with Andrea’s lovely introduction to Quito, I still wasn’t too impressed. It didn’t help that it was raining every day during my entire stay, which means the city was always covered in a layer of clouds and the temperatures were in the 50s – too cold for me to be comfortable. Instead, I never left my guesthouse without my rain jacket and a scarf.quito new town viewAs for my taxi driver’s comment about Quito having become much safer, Andrea still warned us that it wasn’t a good idea to walk up El Panecillo Hill, on top of which the 45-meter-tall Virgin of Quito thrones over the city, (made of seven thousand pieces of aluminum!) a popular sight for tourists, but apparently not save to walk to. My guidebook had also warned to walk up this hill.quito statueOverall I felt like there was just not a whole lot to do in Quito. I visited almost all of the churches, including the beautiful, ornate Neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional which turned out to be my favorite, and where $2 bought me admission to the bell towers, which offered great views over the city, albeit the cloudy skies never went away for long enough to make it a truly stunning view.Basilica del voto nacionalJust a short walk from the Basilica del Voto Nacional church was the Centro De Arte Contemporaneo De Quito, the Contemporary Art Museum, which, I was happy to find out was free to visit. For an art lover like me, it turned out to be a highlight of my visit to Quito. During my visit they had a photography exhibit about a native group in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which was superb, as well as the ‘Tres mil leguas de algodón’ exhibit by Ecuadorian artist Fabian Patinho for which he photographed women who were comfortable in their bodies in underwear in an intimate setting and then turned them into acrylic paintings.quito contemporary art museumAs I walked out of the museum, I noticed that the walls across from the museum were covered in murals and graffitis – the best ones I’d seen so far! The street art felt like an added bonus to this artsy morning.Quito Street Art EcuadorI almost made the same mistake Alex In Wanderland made to skip the ‘New Town’, but after reading in her article that she regretted waiting until her last night in town to check it out, I decided to head over there to see how it compared to the Old Town. Again, it didn’t blow me away, but it was nice to see that there was an area with lots of restaurants, bars and nightlife, something I hadn’t seen to the same extent in the Old Town, and as I ventured further away from Plaza Foch, the main square in the New Town, I found especially the little plaza Borja Yerovi with its colorfully painted houses and murals delightful.New Town QuitoI even decided to stay in the new part of town upon returning to Quito so that I’d be right by some nice coffee shops and bars, and maybe check out the nightlife. I congratulated myself on that decision when I stopped in Quito for the second time a few weeks later.QuitoTo be honest, I wouldn’t have come back to Quito had it not been for a mountain biking tour of Cotopaxi volcano I wanted to do. Since this particular tour only runs on weekends, I didn’t get to do it during my first visit, but I really wanted to climb at least one volcano in Ecuador, so why not go for the second highest active volcano in all of South America? Cotopaxi is one of the highest volcanos in the world, reaching a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters).cotopaxi volcano climbAgain, the weather gods weren’t on my side when I returned to Quito, but I tried to make the best of my volcano tour. On a grey and rainy day, our group of six piled into a minivan, and when we arrived in Cotopaxi National Park, the volcano was hiding behind a massive cloud. We drove up until a parking lot to do a short climb up to Refugio Jose Rivas at 15,953 feet / 4,864 meters – the highest point you can climb to at the moment. Summiting hasn’t been possible since August 2015, when the volcano woke up and started spewing ash again for the first time in thirteen years.Cotopaxi Bike Tour EcuadorAs we were making our way to the Refugio, it started snowing, and what started out as light snow turned into a considerable snowstorm by the time we reached the top. The snow turned into rain when we descended again, ready to hop on the mountain bikes, ruining the experience I had been very much looking forward to.dani cotopaxiWe arrived at Laguna Limpiopungo at 12,566 feet (3,830 meters) completely soaked, muddy and chilled to the bone. The flora and fauna of the Altiplano, which I had admired when we were driving through the Altiplano that morning, was barely visible in the rain, and I couldn’t even bring myself to take out my camera and snap a picture of the lagoon, which is popular with birds and would have made for the perfect place to end our tour at. This was certainly not the mountain biking adventure I had been hoping for, but I guess you can’t be lucky all the time.cotopaxi bike tour daniWhen I was dropped off in Plaza Foch, the center of the bar scene of Quito’s New Town, after the tour, I knew I had made the right decision to stay in this part of town: the plaza, which had been quiet the night before, was bustling with people, the coffee shops and restaurants were all busy. It was Friday night and I was determined to make my last night in Quito a memorable one.QuitoI found a lovely vegetarian restaurant, El Maple, and right across the street from it, a fantastic artisanal German micro-brewery, Cherusker Cerveceria. On the same street (Joaquin Pinto), I checked out The Lucky Charm Pub, and around the corner Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, which happened to be right next door to Radar, a gay and lesbian bar. So while I didn’t grow fond of Quito during my two visits, I felt like I ended them on a good note with a little taste of Quito’s superb nightlife.Quito

Have you been to Quito? What did you think of Ecuador’s capital?

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Swing At The End Of The World

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador Baños end of the world swingBaños is known as Ecuador’s adventure capital, and I knew there were a bunch of activities I could do here that would give me a nice adrenaline rush – rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, zip lining and canyoning, to name just a few.

The one attraction that gave me sweaty palms though? The infamous ‘swing at the end of the world;, where you dangle from a tree house over a cliff, high up in the mountains over Baños. It’s one of those places that you see a picture of and know you have to go there. Or is that just me?

For years, this was one of the only places I knew about in Ecuador. I knew about the Galápagos Islands, I knew about Quito, and the Swing At The End Of The World.

Since this was the thing I was most excited about doing in Baños, it was where I was headed to first. Initially I attempted hiking up the mountain, but when, after walking for an hour, I still hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the mountain on top of which the swing sits, I changed my mind and took a Chiva instead, a truck that’s converted into a tourist shuttle with benches in the back.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure if I’d actually swing on the swing or just take some photos, because I have a terrible fear of heights. But eventually I decided that I’d regret not doing it, and chances that I’ll ever return to Baños are pretty slim.

And so I got in line for about half an hour for two minutes of swinging over the cliff.. and I am happy to report that I lived to tell the tale.

I continued my adventurous week in Baños with a mountain bike tour along the popular waterfall route and two firsts for me: rafting and canyoning. How did that go? I’ll share my experiences in a detailed article on Baños soon… stay tuned!

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Polaroid Of The Week: Colonial Beauty in Cuenca, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador cuenca

When my mosquito bite count reached one hundred and my laptop’s cooling fan started making noises as if it was trying to tell me ‘I can’t deal with this heat anymore‘, I decided that it was time to get away from the beaches for a while and give both my laptop and my itching limbs a break. The beach had been nice, but I needed to get somewhere high enough for the mosquitoes to not get there. And so I headed to Cuenca, at 8,370 ft (2,550 meters) too high for mosquitoes to continue to feast on me and cool enough for my laptop not to overheat.

Cuenca is a popular expat destination, with 5,000 mainly North American expats living there, and it is easy to see why. Life in Cuenca is pleasant, cheap and tranquil. Mountains surround the city, and you can walk everywhere in the center. Cuenca has 52 churches and the best preserved colonial architecture in Ecuador, so much so that UNESCO declared the city center a World Heritage site. It was a city that I liked immediately – the first time I had this feeling during my time in Ecuador!

Without many ‘must see’ landmarks, I adapted to Cuenca’s slow pace and got into a nice routine of a daily morning run along the river, followed by a tasty breakfast in one of the coffee shops in the city center. I’d work for a few hours on my laptop and then head out and just wander the streets, curious to see what I’d find. I stumbled upon gorgeous colonial buildings, quaint plazas and plenty of good restaurants. After eating mostly Ecuadorian food for the past few weeks, I was delighted to find Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and tasty Italian food, including pizza (and I am a hard-to-please pizza snob!).

The only mistake I made? I waited too long to do a couple of things I had on my to-do-list, most importantly climbing the bell towers of the impressive Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Cuenca’s main church, built in 1887, whose domes of sky-blue Czech tile (pictured in the Polaroid) are visible from almost anywhere in town, and where the view from the top over the city is supposed to be fantastic. Instead of heading up there on a sunny day, I felt lazy and decided to ‘do it later’ – only that the blue skies never returned. Instead, I experienced a couple of rainy and grey days, making it also not worth it to go to ‘Turi’, Cuenca’s best viewpoint, to get a view over all the city’s red-tiled roofs.

However, I was still enjoying my time here, even though I didn’t make it to all the places the guide books recommended. Instead, I experienced Cuenca like a local, with a nice routine, slowing down my travels, and appreciating the laid-back atmosphere, before my action-packed next stop, where many adventure activities would await: Baños, aptly nicknamed Ecuador’s adventure capital.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Beach sunset in Montañita, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador montanita
After my week in hot and sticky Guayaquil I couldn’t wait to get to the beach for a fresh ocean breeze. I had heard great things about Montañita, a small village on the Santa Elena Peninsula on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. Montañita is the country’s number one surf spot, and, as I learned when I arrived there, a prime party destination for people from all over South America. Think South America’s answer to Ibiza, only with less mega clubs, but with loud music right on the beach instead, blasting from several discos right along the shore.

The problem with that? I was just not in the mood for a mega party, and I had also been warned about walking around town at night by myself. A couple of backpacking girls from Argentina were brutally murdered in Montañita less than a year ago, and I didn’t get a good vibe from the village. The beach was okay, but nothing special, and the waves were so insanely high that there was a red flag on the beach every day, warning people that the surf was intense and the current was strong.

I ended up preferring the two beaches south and north of Montañita – Olon to the north was much more charming, with seemingly nicer accommodation and cuter restaurants, plus several appealing beach bars and less tourists. Manglaralto to the south seemed like it lacked foreign tourists entirely – or at least I never saw any when I ventured down there.

What all three villages have in common: the amazing sunset spectacle the sky put on for us every single night. I made sure not to miss a single one – Pacific sunsets never disappoint.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Taking In The Views Over Guayaquil, Ecuador

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador guayaquil

After cruising around the Galapagos Islands, I was in urgent need of a break to catch up on work projects and to deal with the hundreds of emails that had piled up in my inbox while I was on the boat (I get so many emails these days, I can barely handle the volume anymore!). I decided to stay in Guayaquil, the city where I’d flown to the Galapagos from, which happens to be Ecuador’s largest city, and one of the largest sea ports in all of South America. Beyond that, there’s not all that much to do and see for tourists though. A newly revamped river walk, the Malecon 2000, made for a great running track in the mornings, and for some good entertainment in the evenings (people watching, and an IMAX cinema that showed LaLa Land).

Just north of the Malecon sits Las Peñas, the city’s oldest neighborhood, where colorful little houses are built into the side of a hill, Cerro Santa Ana. The neighborhood used to be a slum, but a regeneration project transformed it into the tourist attraction that it is today. 432 stairs lead up to the top of the hill, each one numbered, so that with each step, you are painfully reminded you how many more stairs you still have to climb. Once you reach the top, however, you are rewarded with spectacular 360° views over Guayaquil and the wide Guayas River. There is also a little chapel on the top of Cerro Santa Ana, and a lighthouse which you can climb for even better views (including the chapel – see Polaroid). The brightly painted houses, little plazas with palm trees, and alleyways where cats were lounging in the sun and laundry was drying in the air made this my favorite part of the city – I even made my way up these cruel stairs twice, despite the relentless heat. That heat was what eventually made decide on my next stop: the beaches along the Pacific Coast, about 2.5 hours west of Guayaquil, seemed like a perfect place to escape the heat of the city for a while.

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Polaroid Of the Week: Cruising Around The Galapagos Islands

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador galapagos

This week I went on a trip of a lifetime: a 4-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago  of 20 islands, 42 islets, and over 250 rocks in the ocean, a 2-hour flight of the coast off mainland Ecuador, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise! For four days, we cruised around some of the islands, with frequent snorkeling stops and island explorations. The boat would anchor in the ocean, and our dinghies would bring us to the shore. With the exception of one island, Santa Cruz, we never encountered any other people, it always felt like we were the only ones out there. Even when the boat was cruising in between islands, we often didn’t see another boat for hours.

The snorkeling stops were my favorite part – we swam with penguins, sharks, rays, seals and turtles. Something I never tire of! On land, we watched Giant Tortoises mating, eating and just being, we watched sea lions take over the ports of the two towns we stopped in, and we watched hundreds of colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling around the rocks near the shore. I photographed iguanas, blue-footed boobies and other birds, I got up for a sunrise snorkeling session near a rock in the middle of the ocean which was a popular spot with hammerhead sharks, and I sunbathed on a dreamy, secluded, tropical beach.

It truly was a dream trip for all the experiences I had – but then there was also the boat I was on, which was a big part of it, considering that’s where we spent the majority of our time. Aptly named ‘Majestic’, it was a gorgeous 16-passenger yacht with a beautiful sun deck and a Jacuzzi. Our crew spoiled us with tasty buffet meals and snacks every time we came back from an excursion, definitely exceeding my expectations in terms of food and service. I couldn’t have been happier about doing this trip with Galapagos Luxury Charters, who put together personalized, all-inclusive cruises around the islands.

I can’t wait to share all the photos (well, maybe not all of them, considering I took well over 800) and stories of my Galapagos trip with you – I have yet to look at all the footage I took with my underwater camera but I will start sharing it shortly on my social media channels, so make sure to follow me on Instagram and Facebook for a first peek.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Quito’s Stunning Basílica del Voto Nacional

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador quito

I’m back in South America! And it strangely feels like I’ve never left, even though it’s been nearly eleven months since I said goodbye to Colombia. But considering I was in Mexico until mid-April and then again a whole month in November, it shouldn’t be too surprising that everything feels strangely familiar.

The Latin America traffic craze, the bustling markets and town squares, the noise (horns, speakers, megaphones), the street food vendors everywhere.

There were a few things though that made Quito, my first stop in Ecuador, feel different: 1) there are many women in traditional native dress, with long skirts and braids, hats and colorful shawls, which remind me a lot of the native dress in Bolivia.

And 2) The altitude! Quito is the second highest city in the world (only La Paz sits higher), and with an altitude of just over 9,200 feet I definitely felt the affects of it. I don’t think I’ve been to a place that high since traveling around Bolivia three years ago.

I’ll leave my thoughts on Quito for a separate article, but let’s just say I didn’t really connect with the city. That doesn’t mean I had a bad time here, but I didn’t see anything truly amazing and didn’t feel like I needed to spend more time here than the 4 days I had in Quito. I wandered the streets of the historic Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), I visited several of Quito’s stunning churches including the Basilica of the National Vow, pictured, which is he largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. I went to the new part of town (where I had an amazing Ecuadorian hot cocoa!), I went to the city’s biggest park and roamed the central market, and while all of that was nice, it just didn’t feel very special. Maybe it was the chilly weather (temperatures in Quito are in the 60s year-round) and the fact that it rained every day (thankfully not all day), Quito just didn’t wow me. I will be back in Quito at some point to use it as a base while taking a couple of excursions (I am planning to take a mountain bike tour of Cotopaxi and to visit the famous Otavalo market) – maybe I’ll warm up to Ecuador’s capital then.

Next stop: The Galápagos Islands!

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