Baños, Cuenca and the South of Ecuador

Back being a solo traveller having said good bye to Laura I head to Banôs. We said we would meet up further down the route.

Thanks to a couple of blogs I learned there are two options to get to Baños from Latacunga. Either a taxi to the main highway and flag down the Baños bus from Quito or take one of the many buses to Ambato. Then take a short taxi to the North bus terminal and get a bus from there to Baños.

I chose the latter and got lucky, as I got to Ambato and said Baños, I was put on a bus to Coca from the same station that went via Baños. The bus left in 5 minutes so I had to hot foot it to the terminal. Total journey was 7 hours costing less than $10

Arriving into Baños at 9pm, I decided to make the 15 minute walk on foot with my bags. What I didn’t account for was it all being up hill. I was booked into hostel ‘La Casa del Molino Blanco’, I think only because of the breakfast that was included. It certainly wasn’t for the atmosphere or Friendly staff.

I should have asked Holly, Dan , Lana and Ana where they had booked, as they too were all in Baños for a few days. Like so many of us doing the same route through South America.

Baños is a well visited town on the gringo travel circuit due to its adventure sports, hot thermal spring baths and the active volcano ‘Tungurahua‘. Oh and of course ‘La Casa del Árbol’ for that Instagram picture.

I booked a bike for $6 for the next day, to cycle the ‘Ruta de las Cascadas’ to check out seven waterfalls along the route, which I was told would be down hill all the way.

This indeed turned out to be mostly true, but some of the route is along the main highway. So if your are a nervous cyclist this might not be for you.

It was great to be on a bike, as appose to on my feet. Although the slight up hill really takes it out of you at 1850m above sea level. The first 5 waterfalls weren’t that spectacular, but the valley and the river was.

I stopped a few times too look at the many zip lines that were strung along the banks of the river. Looks so much fun, but it would have to wait for another day.

Cycling into Rio Verde I come across two guys that I recognised from my bus from Quilotoa to Latacunga. Maybe because they had their tops off it made them stand out. So of course I had to stop.

Sadly one of them had a flat tyre and their bike hire company hadn’t given them a repair kit or a spare tube. I thought about offering mine – but what if it happens to me.!!!

Rio Verde was less than 500m, they would surely find a shop there to help them.

I carry on and come to the fast flowing river ‘Rio Verde’ and stop to take a picture. Two guys then asked me to take a few pictures of them. Hang on a second… I get a sense that these too are more than just friends. Gay-dar alert.

It turns out over lunch in fact Victoriano and Sebastián are a couple, and they live in Buenos Aries and were kind enough to invite me to lunch at a lovely place called Miramelindo. We then spent the rest of the afternoon together at the waterfall.

The highlight of this tour is the impressive ‘Pilon de Diablo’ or ‘Devils Cauldron’ waterfall. Walking down the steps to the base of the waterfall, the intensity and sheer power of the water hits you. You see the water cascading over the rock face and feel the full force of Mother Nature, while getting soaked by the spray.

Also high above you can walk along the wooden suspension bridges and see the fierce flowing Rio Verde disappear into a small hole in the rock and descend into the spectacular waterfall.

After a night of drinking cocktails and shots with Victoriano and Sebastián, all I could manage the next day was the short $1 bus ride up the hill to ‘La Casa del Arbol’. Entry $1.50

Surprise Surprise I bump into Holly and Dan, all little underwhelmed by what we see, we make sure we get the important shot for Instagram and play on the swings like kids. It turns out we are on the same bus to Cuenca that evening.

Sadly Ecuador doesn’t celebrate Halloween like we do, so no excuse to dress up. Instead they celebrate ‘Day of the dead’ on the 1st November. Celebrating those that have passed, by gathering at the local cemetery, offering respect and flowers while listening to live classical music which could be heard across the whole of the town.

A nice and more positive way of remembering those that have passed.

Ten pm had arrived and it was time to get the bus to Cuenca. This would turn out to be possibly the worse 9 hrs of my life. So far..

No leg room, windows that didn’t close and that rattled with every bump – something you learn quickly in South America is that their roads suck – and a seat that barely reclined. I got no sleep what so ever.

To make it worse, the bus was overbooked so there were locals standing in the isle and they still let more on. No wonder gringos get robbed on busses in Ecuador. It’s a massive problem so always keep your bags on your lap or around feet.

Arriving into Cuenca at 4:30 am, I had to wait at the bus station for my hotel reception to open at 6:30. Yes a hotel and my own room, hurrah .. Mainly because Cuenca was fully booked due to the weekend of festivities. The red satin duvet told me this room is not meant for one.

Cuenca turned out to be my favourite city in Ecuador, with its beautiful colonial buildings and magnificent ‘Cathedral of Immaculate Conception’ or ‘New Cathedral’.

I was lucky to be in Cuenca for the weekend, as from 1st – 4th of November the city comes alive to celebrate the ‘Day of the Dead’ and also celebrates its independence from Spain on the 3rd November.

The city was full of Ecuadorians from all over the country, here to experience the fantastic music, food, art and antiques festival that was sprawled along the banks of the ‘River Tomebamba’ and taking up every square and green space available.

The food festival had food from all over South America with at least 200 different tents offering a delicious delight.

The other highlight of Cuenca was, it was the first city I had visited where I could run along the banks of the River Yanucay. It was perfect for running 5km and nice way to start the day. On weekdays in the morning you can find a local Japanese resident that does Tai Chi where many other residents join in.

Conscious that I had been traveling 8 weeks now and only managed two countries, I booked a bus to Vilcabamba.

After much recommendation I booked into the ‘Hostería Izhcayluma‘ where I would meet Dan and Holly again. Thankfully Hosteria Izhcayluma ran their own bus service from Cuenca to the hostel which was $15 and takes 5 hours, two less than the public bus.

Izhcayluma was magical and exactly what I needed, a place to relax and to do free yoga each morning and an extra session in the afternoon for $5. The dorm was lovely, sleeping 6 and only $9 a night. Three beds downstairs and three more on a mezzanine above. It had real log cabin feel to it and the stone shower was enormous and a real luxury compared to most hostels.

Definitely one of my favourite hostels of the trip so far.

Taking advantage of the yoga in the morning, it was a ten minute walk past the pool to the most beautiful Shala I have practiced my downward dog. A view of the valley and mountains that surrounded us and just the sound of nature to relax you.

After a few days of relaxation and trekking the time had come for me to make plans to leave Ecuador. After two fantastic weeks it was time make my way to Peru.

From Vilcabamba it was a 45 minute $1.50 bus to Loja, and then a eight hour $10 night bus to Piura in Peru. The bus company I used was Amazonias and it was pretty good for Ecuadorean standards.

Getting off at passport control and walking across into Peru, was really simple. The whole process took 45 minutes at 4am.

From Piura it was my final 5 hour bus to my first stop in Peru – Mancora .

I can’t tell you how excited I was to be spending a few days by the sea, have sand between my toes and hot sunny weather .

Quilotoa Loop

While travelling I have found blogs a very useful tool to guide you through each country and the Quilotoa Loop popped up as an experience not to be missed and having now completed it myself, I would say it was my favourite trek and activity in Ecuador.

After a good nights sleep and more falafels for breakfast we pack our small rucksacks with enough clothing and supplies to last four days, but not too much to weigh us down while hiking. This was posing to be quite difficult, as the weather can change at any moment on the loop, from hot sun, to rain, to freezing cold.

We load onto the bus at the bus main bus station and head to our first stop Sigchos, a little village 2 hours from Latacunga, and in the middle of high hills covered by little farms. It’s best to get the earliest bus possible which leaves at 7am, if not the 9am as there are only few buses that run to Sigchos. The earlier you start the better chance you have of avoiding the afternoon rain.

The bus zig zags around the green hills, up one and down the next for what seemed like forever.  Dose up on the ‘calms’ before if suffer with travel sickness. 

There was no chance of being alone on our first day trekking, the bus was full of gringos and their back packs. With just the screen shot of directions from a blog for us to use to navigate, and the other gringos to follow I felt more assured that we wouldn’t get lost. How wrong could I be…

Off we set, like sheep following the gringos in front that seemed to know their way. Quickly we learn that its best not to rely on others and check the directions regularly, as one missed turn can mean crossing a river without a bridge and wet boots.

The first days hike to Isinlivi is estimated to take between four and five hours, depending on your fitness and capability of following directions and is meant to be the easiest of the four days.

One of the highlights of the loop is meeting other travellers that you get to know over the course of the four days. Today would be the day that I meet one of my favourite travelling couples, Lana from Bosnia and Ana from Mexico.

Ana having recently injured her foot, meant that Lana had to carry by herself this massive rucksack – it looked like it was packed to last a month not four weeks. The first part of the trek was a gentle meander down the valley to the river, crossing the bridge and through the village. Really quite pretty and so far relatively easy.

Well the easy part ended after taking the turn after the school, as it was all up hill by a good 200m to the top of the other side of the valley. Following the path that was also used by cow and mules, muddy in parts and steep in others, but really pretty. Stopping to catch my breath and looking across the valley the view was amazing and so different to any other so far, with patchwork or farms.

We make it to the top after about two hours of walking just as the rain is about to start. On our way up we see some of the others from the group, who have taken a wrong turn, and start a long climb up a much steeper and tougher route.

Arriving at our destination Isinlivi after just over three hours of walking, we are happy to find a happy welcome at the Llullu Lama hostel, a beautiful styled hostel that reminded me of staying in a ski chalet in the Alps. Maybe that’s because its run by an Ecuadorean-Dutch couple, the European influence definitely coming through.

The real positive to Llullu Lama, wasn’t just the roaring log fire keeping everyone warm, but the jacuzzi, steam and sauna. Sadly the only the jacuzzi was working on my visit. But after a long trek, there was nothing better than talking to a group of strangers half naked while drinking beer.

After good evening meal and delicious breakfast we were ready for day two of trekking. The sun was out again, and I had stripped down to just shorts and a vest, meaning I had to carry everything else. A group of eight of us left the hostel at the same time, all with the same instructions.

We were all told to not follow the second instruction due to a landslide a few week previous, but to take a different route. Well, we may as well have not had the instructions as they made not sense from beyond that point. Instead of going down the valley to the river, we managed to go up, up and up and cross the valley at a different point.

This making the route much harder, but far more beautiful than if we had just followed the river. Luckily a local lady told us to look out for the winding path down. Which we did and we found the river and some other lost trekkers. Although we had gone a much longer way, we all enjoyed it. 

Well except for Thomas the French guy. Who hated the fact that we were talking in English and not Spanish, or French. We all laughed when he took a wrong turn and was then chased by a dog and shouted at by the owner.

We always knew the last part of the trek to Chigchilan would always be the toughest, what we haven’t planned for was the extra effort we had to put in earlier due to getting lost. The last part indeed was steep and long. But there was determination not to let Thomas reach the top before us. Even with his walking poles to aid him.

Arriving at the Cloud Forest hostel, the mist started to cover the village and the temperature drop drastically. Now we understood why we needed our warm clothes. The only warm room was the main common room, that was full of about 40 people and smoke from the log burner. Tonight would be an early night for sure.

Well not before a few beers with our fellow trekkers, discussing how we all managed to take different route to get here.
Day three and the day we would make it to the top of the extinct volcano Quilotoa and see what all the fuss is about. Having beaten the average time for the previous two days, we decided to take it easier today and walk with Lana, Ana, Joe and Faye.

This time we were not going to get lost. Mainly because it was so well signposted along the way we didn’t need our instructions. Along this route as before we had lots of local children, offering to show us directions for caramel or sweets and aks for their foto to be taken.

The cutest were brother and sister, Dennis and Viviana and their cousin Lesley. Not one of the children we met had what I would call a typical Spanish name, there were all western names. 

After about 2 hours walking across the most beautiful landscape, that looked like a patchwork quilt under a perfect blue expanse of blue sky, with the sun shinning strong. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect.

Stopping for some food, the other fellow trekker’s Holly and Dan caught us up and joined the group. So far most of the trek has mainly been flat or down hill, zig zagging along the valleys edge. This is where the fun begins, as we descend higher towards 3700m and the volcano crater rim.

Nearing the top of the sand track, I look back to see if I can see the others in the distance, but alas I cannot. Dan, Holly and myself had quickened are pace, and we could hear the sound of the dogs the others were disturbing as they descend upwards slowly. 

Reaching the top and seeing the expanse of green water that shimmered in the days sun was incredible. My first crater lagoon experience, and what a spectacular journey to get here. Pretty exhausted from the 4 hour trek, I rest and just take in the view.

Just then a cute little four year old comes up from no where, with the cutest smile saying “foto, foto” and sits next to me and starts pressing my selfie stick remote. “Otro, otro” meaning another. Even little kids out here on the top of a volcano know how to work an iphone.

Laura joins me with the others and we just rest and appreciate what we see before us. Also to rest, before the final one and half hour trek along the rim to the village of Quilotoa where we will spend the evening.

There are two options you can take around crater to reach the town. One that takes 5 hours and reaches the highest point at 3900m and the shorter 3 hour route. We opted for the shorter one as the weather was turning and we made it in one hour thirty minutes .

The alpaca hostel was our base for the evening, which turned out to be a great find. We got a room with two doubles beds for the price of a dorm. The log fire lit, we kept warm fully clothed under the three blankets, it was so cold. A night of playing cards around the log fire with our fellow trekkers Lana and Ana was the perfect end to a perfect three days.

Yes it was a meant to be four days, but we decided to not trek the final day to Zumbahua. Mainly because we were exhausted and most of it was along a road.

The following day it was back to Latacunga and goodbye to Laura as she heads to work on a farm for a month in the North of Ecuador and I continue South to Banôs