Day trips in Ecuador

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021

Ecuador packs a staggering variety of geography into a small area – the whole country is slightly bigger than Colorado.  In one-day trips from the centrally located capital of Quito, a traveler can visit volcanoes, cloud forests, indigenous villages high in the mountains, and hot springs. 

Quito sits at 9,000 feet elevation but its location, right on the equator, makes for a springlike climate year-round, with warm days, cool nights, and periodic rain clouds rolling in from the Andes.  My first foray beyond the city took me northwest, on a winding road that curved down lower on the mountain slopes to Mindo, a small town set in a cloud forest paradise.  Mindo was famous for birdwatching, butterflies, and chocolate tasting, as well as opportunities for “adventure sports” like ziplining, hiking, and river running. I signed on for a one-day action-packed trip that tried to cover as many of those bases as possible. 

Our group, consisting of three women visitors, two male guides and one driver, departed the city early in the morning, zooming without pause past the Mitad del Mundo monument and tourist trap that marked the equator.  It took the better part of two hours to cover the twisting mountain road to Mindo.  First thing, we boarded a rickety looking tarabita (cable car) spanning a deep, green canyon.  Once across, the two guides led us on a hike (more like a jog) down this steep muddy trail to the bottom of the canyon.  Fortunately, walking sticks were available for the taking at the start of the hike; otherwise my knees would have never survived the steep downhill trek.  As it was, I lagged at the rear by the time we reached the canyon bottom.  There, we briefly looked at a couple of minor waterfalls, snapped a picture, then turned around to head back up.    

No time to dip into the clear water below the falls.  “Quickly, quickly,” urged the guides, “we have a lot on the schedule today.”  I did better than the other two women on the uphill portion of the hike.  The Australian had just flown in to Quito the day before and was not acclimatized.  And the woman from Argentina, a smoker, gasped for breath on the steep return climb. 

The trip description was perhaps purposely vague about what all was included, but it turned out all the activities except the cost of lunch were included in one $60 price, a screaming deal.  Once safely back across the canyon on the tarabita, off we went to the zipline.  The Australian begged off, but the Argentine woman and I both opted for the shorter course, which consisted of three ziplines, connected by a couple short but steep climbs.  Fun it was, but not really necessary to my enjoyment of the Mindo experience.  Seen one zipline, seen them all.      

The next stop was a butterfly farm, where we strolled through a covered garden full of the photogenic, iridescent blue morphos and other colorful residents.  Finally, stomach growling, I gratefully followed the guides into a simple restaurant.  We all sat together at a picnic bench and were served the set plate almuerzo – potato soup, chicken, rice, lentils, salad, tamarind juice, and fresh fruit for dessert – all for $3.00.  Finally, we ran back to the van in a downpour and drove to a chocolate farm.  There, under a metal roof while the rain drummed down, we received instruction about how chocolate is made, including (of course) an opportunity to taste several varieties.  I purchased locally made bars of 50% chocolate, for myself and for friends back home.  Altogether they crammed a lot into one day – we didn’t get back to Quito until after dark – and I thought I’d like to someday return to stay in Mindo for a more leisurely visit of a few days.  The day trip was at least a good introduction to some of the possibilities in the cloud forest north of the city.

The next day trip I joined was a jaunt to Otavalo, an indigenous village northeast of the city.  There was only one other person on this trip with me – Robert, a Canadian guy who seemed to have a mental checklist upon which he was ticking off the boxes of must-sees.  A bird rescue center was the first stop.  There, the guide pointed out owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, and condors as we walked past their cages.  Robert lagged behind, shooting video of the bird and repeating a pithy version of what the guide just said – “This is the grey hawk, found from Columbia to Chile, hunts at night.”     

Next we went to the home of an ancient woman who fed us lunch before giving a demonstration of spinning, dyeing, and weaving alpaca fur.  I felt pressured to purchase something after her demo, but fortunately found a tablecloth on her shelves that matched the colors in my living room, so I parted with $25 to buy it. 

Finally, we were taken down to the market and turned loose.  I was disappointed to find that Wednesday was not a prime market day.  About half of the booths were staffed with bored-looking locals, who called out half-heartedly to me to look at their sweaters, leather goods, and jewelry.  They had the exact same products as the mercado I had walked through in Quito, and their prices were same.  I guessed that all of the goods came from the same factory, probably somewhere in Peru.  Nevertheless, I bought a couple little things, earrings and a gourd and a belt, mostly out of pity for the poor vendors, who didn’t have much hope of making rent that day from the handful of tourists wandering through the marketplace.  When I got back to the van, there was Robert filming the rug he bought, while narrating, “This is a rug made of cotton, the dye is made from berries, I paid twenty dollars for it.” I wondered who back home in Edmonton he could strongarm into watching what was developing into a spectacularly boring video. 

I did not return from the day trip to Otavalo, wishing to spend more time there.  If I had gone on market day, and perhaps not with a tour guide but on my own, it might have seemed livelier and more authentic.  The sole highlight of the Otavalo trip for me was the chance to study and photograph a condor close up at the bird rescue center.

On another day, I boarded another van with yet another motley group of travelers – there were six of us from the USA, Chile and Switzerland – for a day trip to visit some volcanoes.  After a quick stop for breakfast at a dairy farm south of Quito, we made a beeline for Cotapaxi National Park.  It took a long time to actually reach the base of 13,000 foot Cotapaxi Volcano after we sighted it on the horizon.  Snow topped, belching smoke, the volcano up close looked dangerous.  We were told it last erupted less than four years earlier, closing the national park for a year while ash rained down as far away as Quito.  The group took a leisurely walk around a lake near the volcano, where spring flowers bloomed and strange looking birds flitted near the water.  The visit to Cotapaxi was mellow, but overlain with a slight thrill of knowing that, if this obviously still active volcano decided to erupt again, anything within 100 miles would be flattened.  The guide told us that lava flowing from its peak moved at 35 miles per hour – faster than we could run, or even drive on the rocky, rough dirt access road. 

Continuing on to the south, we exited the Pan-American Highway and drove up the side of a mountain to the lofty height of 14,000 feet to visit another volcano – not an active one this time, but one long dead.  The extinct Quilotoa volcano, filled with blue-green sulphur water, looked other-worldly floating in the rarified air.  It seemed a million miles away from the 21st century up there, yet little Inca ladies in their black bowler hats pulled smart phones out of the folds of their long skirts.  Teenagers walking on the street dressed normally in jeans and down jackets.  You could just tell that they desperately wanted to get out of the hinterlands and dreamed of moving to the big city of Quito. 

We had a nearly inedible lunch at someone’s house in the village of Quilotoa.  For once I wished I was a vegetarian, as was the couple from California, because the mystery meat (mutton?) they served the rest of us was too tough to eat.  It didn’t go to waste, though.  The guide collected all the uneaten meat at the end of the lunch (I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t eat it).  Then, on the way back down the mountain, we pulled to the shoulder in several places where stray dogs lurked, and gave each of them a bone to chew on.  The whole trip to both volcanoes made for an extremely long day – about 14 hours – but it was worth it to experience the remote volcanoes that formed the backbone of the Andes.   

The last trip I took from Quito was by far the least demanding.  No death marches down a canyon, no poor indigenes begging for money, no smoking volcanoes threatening to erupt.  Another active volcano, called Antisana, was involved, but we didn’t bother stopping to look at it.  Instead, our small group drove directly to Papallacta Hot Springs Resort.  The hot springs, heated by the volcano, emptied into a dozen pools scattered around the beautifully landscaped grounds of the resort.  A small restaurant offered sustenance.  Individual steam rooms provided opportunity to breathe in the heat.

I missed most of what the guide said on the one-hour ride up to the resort.  By this time tired of listening to various guides’ renditions of Ecuadorian history and geography, I had chosen to listen to music instead.  But once set loose for a lovely six hour stay at the resort, I soaked in volcano-heated water until my skin pruned.  Since it was a Monday, the resort was not crowded.  In fact, our group of ten people was the only people there for most of the afternoon.  It was the most relaxed day of my entire two weeks in Quito, a perfect ending to the time spent in this spectacular compact country high in the mountains at the middle of the world. 

Exploring Quito

By Kathleen Kemsley, (c) 2021

To tour or not to tour, that is the question.  For independent travelers, planning a journey to a foreign country involves decisions.  The most important is, to what extent will you engage in the services of professional tour guides?  Organized tours guarantee that you’ll see the big ticket items, check them off your list.  The downside, of course, is that when some place draws you closer, you’re unable to linger because the guides urge the herd of tourists to keep moving.  The bus is about to leave.     

In Quito, my solution to the tour / no tour conundrum was to alternate days.  One day with a group, the next day on my own.  In this way, I got to visit several attractions in the surrounding countryside – traditional Otavalo, tropical Mindo, serene Papallacta Hot Springs, and stunning Cotapaxi volcano.  Yes, I was with a group – but it was a different group each day.  The groups were small, anywhere from two to seven people.  Headphones drowned out the droning sing-song narrative when I tired of listening to the guide.  All I really paid for on each trip was the transportation to the desired location.  Once there, I was free to walk away from the others, and explore on my own.

In between these jaunts outside the city, I reserved unplanned days to wander and explore Quito on my own.  One day, I rode a bus to Plaza Grande, then embarked on a walking tour of historical Old Town.  Along the way, I detoured off course to duck into a museum, where I studied a pictorial display about the devastating terremoto (earthquake) that flattened the city and killed 70,000 people in 1868.  I snuck into a church service for a couple of stealth photos of the ornate 17th century interior.  And I sat at a sidewalk restaurant in the plaza, watching life unfold for the local people: traditionally dressed Andean women selling food or souvenirs, shoe-shine guys touting their business, school children giggling as their teacher herded them into the Palace of the Governor, and old men gossiping as they sat on wooden benches under the trees.

Once in awhile I glanced surreptitiously at my guidebook, but remained conscious of not appearing to be a lost tourist.  Up and down I walked the steep narrow streets, rubbing shoulders with pedestrians who moved twice as fast as me, unbothered by the 9,000 foot elevation of Quito.  After a long jaunt downhill on Venezuela Street, I reached the Basilica de Voto National, a massive church built over several decades starting in 1892. Instead of gargoyles, figures of turtles and iguanas protruded from the building’s façade, providing a uniquely Ecuadorian slant on the church’s Gothic theme.

Another day, I took a taxi to the northwest side of the city to reach the famous TeleferiQo, an aerial tram ride which takes people to a viewpoint called Cruz Loma above the city at 12,000 ft.  While standing in line, I met Jose, a local man who wanted to practice his English, and encouraged me to answer him in Spanish.  Thus we passed the 30 minute wait for the cable car communicating like a couple of three-year-olds.  Mangled grammar and lots of hand waving and laughter.  Once we rode the tram to the top, he took off for a long hike to Volcano Pichincha, while I chose an easier loop walk past a corral of horses for rent, a swing that sailed out over the cliff, and a platform where tourists could take a selfie with the entire city of Quito spread out below.   

Returning to the city, I moved from the hostel to a nicer hotel one block off the Parque Ejido at the center of town.  My new digs, the Hotel Lef, was intended to be my headquarters for about a week in downtown Quito.  You can never really tell by looking in a guidebook or a website, just what a hotel will be like.  Is the neighborhood safe?  Is there anywhere to eat?  In the case of Hotel Lef, I lucked out, as it turned out to be extremely clean, quiet and friendly.  The owner spoke no English, but thanks to the Google Translate app, and my halting Spanish, we managed to communicate.  He even used his personal vehicle one day to run me across town to meet a bus for a day trip to Volcano Cotapaxi. 

Once settled in, I walked to the park.  Since it was Sunday, hundreds of city residents had flocked to the park for a family day.  I walked past hastily erected food booths, studying other people’s plates before deciding on a cheap traditional meal of barbecued chicken, rice, corn, and a huge fruit cup, all for about $1.50.  Andean music drifted across the grass, so after lunch I went to find it.  On a platform near the bathrooms, a dance performance by students of the Intihuasi Dance School was underway.  Dressed in colorful costumes, children as young as seven completed complex steps.  Older couples whirled and spun to traditional pan flute music.  Their exuberance was dizzying and intoxicating.  At the end, they passed a hat through the crowd of onlookers for donations.  I happily threw in a couple dollars.  

Early the next morning, I left my hotel before dawn, clad in running shorts, and covered the distance of one block to Parque Ejido.  In the gathering light, I ran circles around the outside edge of the park, but I was not alone.  Other joggers joined me; also walkers, some with dogs on leashes, followed the perimeter trail.  I passed one section of the park where several homeless people were sleeping in cardboard tents.  No one looked up, and I avoided cutting my eyes into their territory, demarcated with stacked cement blocks and pieces of wood.  Around the far side of the park, vendors had set up carts, offering bowls of traditional rice-based breakfast stew.  Well-dressed young professionals hurried to waiting busses, and the traffic thickened as I rounded the park for the fourth time.  Proud to be able to run (albeit slowly) at 9,000 feet, I enjoyed fitting in with the locals who exercised in the heart of Quito. 

Research before I left home had provided me with the location of an English-speaking chapter of a spiritual group of which I was a long-time member.  When the day arrived, I caught a taxi across town to attend their morning meeting.  Eighteen people eventually showed up – “on Ecuador time,” a few minutes late – and the meeting proceeded to last until noon.  I met Mike, a physician from Ohio; Josh, a computer programmer from Toronto, Canada; Mimi, a teacher who lived in Quito; and Patrick, a retired pilot from York, England. 

After the meeting, we piled into cars and drove to Plaza Foch for a lunch of Indian food and an animated conversation.  Then, Patrick invited me to accompany him and a couple of the others to an outdoor coffee shop on the other side of the plaza, where we sat all afternoon sipping coffee and playing dominoes.  They used three-sided dominoes with numbers from 0 to 5 on each side, which was a variant I had never seen before.  I passed several more hours laughing with my new friends, telling stories about Ecuador, and trying unsuccessfully to outsmart them at this simple but deceptively challenging game. 

On another day I wanted to get to the botanical gardens in Carolina Park.  The easiest option seemed to be hopping onto the red “Quito Bus” which provided jump-on, jump-off access to points of interest in the city.  I rode right through Old Town (having already walked my way through it a few days before), and jumped off at the Virgin of Quito Lookout when the bus made a stop there.  The Virgin, a 130 foot tall aluminum mosaic statue, waved a cool hand at the city. Views from her base north across the sprawling city rimmed by volcanoes were breathtaking.    

Back on the red bus, I rode past the historic (and pricey) Hotel Quito, through the financial district, and finally to Carolina Park.  A huge green oasis in the middle of the city, the park contained bike paths, soccer fields, and a lake where paddleboats were available for rent.  Inside the botanical garden, I walked through sections showcasing the various native habitats encompassed in Ecuador: high altitude grasslands, tropical Amazonian headwaters, palm groves, cloud forest, wetlands, coastal jungles, and desert cactus gardens.  Like Ecuador itself, the botanic gardens fit a lot of variety into a small space.  Inside a greenhouse, I found a spectacular display of at least a hundred different varieties of orchid.  My favorite, the aptly named Dracula orchid, sported fangs and what looked like blood splatter.  

A couple hours later, I caught the next red bus which delivered me (in a roundabout way) back to the Plaza Foch.  I walked through the sprawling mercado maze spread out for several blocks on the way back to my hotel.  The vendors all had similar arts and crafts to sell.  I walked at random, and stopped at the booths of a couple of very friendly but not pushy sellers to look more closely at their wares.  I ended up buying a couple pieces of silver jewelry, a painting, a purse, and a carved gourd.  Though I really didn’t need any of the items, I felt moved to contribute a little to the economy of artisans in Quito. 

After each of these busy days immersed up to my ears in the city of Quito, I was grateful to have a nice quiet room with a comfortable bed to which to retreat.  The Hotel Lef was a great refuge in a central location from which to explore this fascinating and exotic city. 

DIY Galapagos

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2020

Galapagos Islands – the name brings to mind two immediate associations: wildlife found nowhere else on earth, and prohibitively expensive travel.  I wanted to see the giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, and land iguanas.  But I didn’t have ten grand to throw at a week long cruise or fancy all-inclusive tour.  My solution was to join a group that provided a land-based tour, including lodging and inter-island transportation, and little else.  The idea was that trip participants could navigate their own adventures, and pay their own way, once they got to the islands. Basically, it was a Do It Yourself Galapagos tour.

The group included ten people, who rather quickly broke into two units. One unit was comprised of a couple from England, a couple from California, and two singles from New York and New Brunswick, who were obviously destined to hook up.  This unit, younger and more energetic, chose to engage in day-long, high energy activities such as a ten mile overland hike to a volcano and a three hour boat ride to glimpse a rare sea horse. 

The other unit consisted of ladies “of a certain age.”  Debs, 58, was a divorced grandmother from England.  I was an American widow a couple years older than Debs.  We two shared lodging accommodations for the duration of the trip.  The third woman, Belinda, also our age, had left her husband behind in Australia and was traveling with her 83 year old mother, Heather.  The four of us immediately became fast friends and companions. 

When we met on San Cristobal Island the first day, the other group booked a day-long boat excursion to Kicker Rock.  We ladies would have been willing to go also, but alas, the total capacity of the boat they engaged was only six.  So I searched my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to devise an alternate strategy.  The result was a great DIY adventure, traveling around the island on our own. 

We hired Roger, a taxi driver who, for $100, agreed to take the four of us for a day trip to see the island’s terrestrial sights.  Departing from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the road headed up to Cerro San Joaquin, the highest point on the island at nearly 3,000 feet.  Shrouded in fog, the hills were carpeted in lush grasses and thick brush.  I practiced my Spanish with Roger as we sailed over the top and coasted down the far side.  We came to a stop at Galapaguera, a wildlife preserve.   

There we got a chance to meet the creatures we had traveled thousands of miles to see – giant tortoises.  Entering the fenced parkland, we presently came upon a big group of them milling around on the refuge grounds.  Weighing in at 250 pounds, the giants appeared unfazed by the presence of humans.  A ranger stood nearby to make sure no one touched the creatures. He told us that the oldest tortoises, 150 years old, had become a protected species after early Galapagos explorers nearly exterminated them.  Biologists at the preserve, he said, collected tortoise eggs, incubated them, and protected the babies for about seven years until they were old enough to fend for themselves.  They were then released to the grounds of the preserve to consume about five pounds of plant matter per day, and multiply.

Apparently, it was mating season while we were there.  One big male was seen pursuing a female tortoise across a shallow pond.  As we watched him catch up to her and begin to clamber on top, the ranger said that it can take two hours or more for these creatures to complete the act. To give them some privacy, we moved away and found another gentle giant who posed agreeably in a clearing.  She opened her mouth to show a pink tongue.  “They make me feel young!” said Heather as we old ladies gathered behind the old lady tortoise for a picture.

Once our desire for tortoise photos was sated, we returned to the taxi and proceeded to the next destination.  Chino Beach lay at the end of the road on the southeast corner of the island.  Black lava rocks framed a beautiful little beach with white sugar sand.  Overheated after a downhill walk through a cactus forest in the tropical sun, I ran into the azure water to rejuvenate.  The other three women joined me, along with a fearless sea lion who, surprisingly, appeared to be enjoying some body surfing near us in the waves. 

When we returned to the parking lot an hour later, a little food stand had popped up in the shade of a palm tree.  There I bought a bottle of Aloe juice for two dollars.  It felt strange going down – little beads of slimy aloe sliding down my throat – but it was cold and sweet, just the refreshment I needed. 

On the return to town, we made one last stop at a place called El Junco Lagoon.  There, Roger told us that Magnificent Frigate birds regularly fly to this fresh water lake within a volcano crater, there to wash sea salt off their feathers.  Agreeably, we four trudged up a half mile path lined with ferns and blackberry bushes.  Finches and canaries, showing absolutely no fear of us, flitted nearby.  When we reached the edge of the lagoon, we were disappointed that the fog had returned.  The lake water was visible only in glimpses, as dense clouds of mist drifted through.  But in a moment of wonder, the shrouds of fog parted, just long enough to see one of the big black-and-white Frigate birds splash around in the water at the edge of the lake. 

We arrived back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno by mid-afternoon.  Leaving the others, I walked by myself along the malecón.  Sea lions laid around by the hundreds in shop alcoves and on beaches and sprawled on the sidewalks.  Bright red crabs contrasted with black rocks that lined the harbor.  Frigate birds patrolled above the port scene, and beyond, the ocean spread out forever. 

As I watched a cruise ship motor in, I felt not a trace of envy toward its high-paying passengers.  Yes, they might be eating gourmet meals, while I had scrounged a couple fried eggs and a heap of mashed plantains for breakfast.  But I was sure my experience on the DIY jaunt around the island was at least as interesting as their guided, scripted, planned excursion.  And maybe better, because my friends and I had experienced the joy of discovery, on our own in the Galapagos.