I can’t believe that as I write this, we’ve been travelling for nearly nine months and are well into the South American leg of our world tour. At the end of May, we’d left Europe and had arrived safe and sound in Ecuador, where we spent the whole of June.
Ecuador is a beautiful country, with amazingly friendly people and an incredibly diverse selection of scenery for such a small country. There’s tall mountains, active volcanos, crater lakes, incredible alpine national parks, amazing islands, beautiful beaches and tropical jungles.
One thing we weren’t quite prepared for was the weather in Quito. We had in our minds that the weather would be warm throughout South America, even though we knew that Quito was at quite a high altitude. It certainly wasn’t unbearable but we’d kind of been expecting to pack away our polar fleeces for a few months and make good use of our shorts.
So after a few days wandering around Quito, we were pretty excited to head back to sea level and head out to the Galapagos Islands for some time in the sun.
The Galapagos Islands really need no introduction. They are an absolute haven for wildlife and are the highlight of any visit to Ecuador, assuming that you can justify the cost. Having come so far to get to Ecuador, we knew that the Galapagos was definitely on our list of must-see places.
We’d booked a cruise with G Adventures, aboard the Monserrat and it was a great experience. We spent eight nights on the water, with two nights on either side of the trip staying in the Hilton Colon in Quito. It was nice to get a little bit of relative luxury included as part of the trip. The boat was really comfortable and with a maximum capacity of 20 guests, it was a perfect size.
We flew into San Cristobal island via Guayaquil to board the boat and were greeted by some lazy sea-lions hanging around on the dock and swimming in the shallow water, which put us in a great mood. There were also some marine iguanas chilling out on the rocks.
Over the course of the next few days, we had the time of our lives, cruising from island to island, with action-packed days consisting of a combination of guided nature walks and snorkelling sessions.
The highlight for us was the three snorkels we had where we interacted with the sea-lions. The last snorkelling session with them was by far the best because they were being super cheeky, zooming around us in the water showing off.
One of the young sea-lions was particularly nosey, coming up and chewing on our flippers and even trying to mouth Cindy’s camera! At the same time, we were also surrounded by several huge sea turtles, swimming gracefully through the water while feeding near the rocks. It was incredible!
Catching the Wanderbus
We arrived back in Quito in the afternoon and then had another early morning start the very next day. We jumped on board the Wanderbus, which is a hop-on-hop-off guided tour bus. We had booked to take it from Quito down to Cuenca. The beauty of the Wanderbus is that you can get off at several places along the way if you want to spend a couple of nights exploring a town or city further.
On the first day, we headed down to Baños, which included a full day of sightseeing along the way, with some incredible mountain scenery.
Baños de Agua Santa
We stopped off at Baños for three nights. It’s a small town but it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ecuador, mainly because of all the adventure activities that you can do, such as bungee jumping, rafting and zip-lining. It’s also a really pretty town, nestled in a valley with lush green forests all around.
We’d booked to stay in a small B&B up on the hill. Little did we realise that it was a fifteen-minute drive up and down to get there. Fortunately, our hosts were lovely and were waiting to pick us up when the bus arrived. Thereafter they would drop us down into town in the morning and pick us up when we texted at the end of the day.
We really enjoyed our time up there. They were a lovely family and it was a bit like staying in a homestay. The only downside was that we didn’t get much of a view, which was one of the reasons that we’d booked it in the first place. It was so foggy in the morning that we could barely see anything down in the valley and we always returned after dark.
The highlight of our time in Baños was the bicycle tour we did down the Ruta de las Cascadas. This route takes you downhill, alongside a deep gorge, and past multiple waterfalls. It’s pretty spectacular. Along the way, we stopped to do a double zip line, across the gorge and over one of the waterfalls. It was a whole lot of fun.
After enjoying Baños, we hopped back on the Wanderbus, heading down south towards Cuenca. We broke up the journey by spending a couple of nights in the pretty little town of Alausi. There’s not a great deal to do in Alausi. It’s mainly known for the Devil’s Nose scenic train ride but that only takes half a day to do. So we spent a lot of our time in Alausi, just wandering around and exploring the town. We stayed at a lovely new hostel with an amazing breakfast and a really friendly manager. We enjoyed a couple of peaceful days there before heading on to our next large city.
Well actually, Cuenca is not that big but it is quite bustling, even in the shoulder season. It’s a middle-class city that is full of expats, mainly from the U.S. and Canada. They flock there for its nice weather and cheap healthcare.
Cuenca is a great city to wander around. The only thing that would stop me spending extended time there is that its air is rather polluted, at least in the old town. This is mainly due to the old public buses that pump out a lot of exhaust fumes. Apparently, the city is planning on replacing them with modern buses in the next year or so which should make a big difference.
Perhaps the highlight of our time in Cuenca was our trip to the Cajas National Park which is only about 30 km outside the city centre. We took a small-group guided tour which included a couple of short hikes through some amazing alpine scenery.
We spent a full week in Cuenca. It was nice to have some time to just relax and stay put for a bit. We also happened to be there during the Corpus Christi festival, so we were treated to a parade and a few nights of fireworks. Good timing!
Back up to Baños
After leaving Baños, we made our way up towards Tena where we’d be heading into the jungle to have a few days of Spanish lessons, plus some outdoor activities, at Gaia Amazon Lodge and Spanish School. However because the trip from Cuenca to Tena is quite lengthy, we decided to stop off in Baños again for a couple of nights along the way.
This time we were using one of the local bus companies, rather than the Wanderbus. When we boarded the bus in the morning, there was only us and a few other gringos on board. So, unfortunately, we let our guard down and put our backpack in the overhead rack, against all the advice that we’d read online. Then, no more than ten minutes into the bus ride, a whole lot of locals boarded the bus, including three would-be thieves.
In the bustle that ensued, one of them deftly pushed our backpack down to the back of the bus, ready to pilfer. I didn’t even realise what had happened but fortunately, Cindy and the conductor did. The driver pulled over next to a policeman and they kicked the thieves off. In the chaos that ensued, we briefly thought that they’d stolen our laptops because they’d put them back in a different pocket of our bag. We were super-relieved to discover that we hadn’t lost them after all.
Into the Jungle
After a lazy day in Baños, we headed back on the bus up to Tena. Tena is one of the gateways to the Amazon in Ecuador. There’s not a lot to see in town but it does have a park across the river that you can walkthrough. There, we managed to spot our very first Tapir, just hanging around next to the boardwalk, munching on leaves. We hadn’t expected to see such a large animal there, so he gave us a bit of a shock.
The next day we headed across the river to Punta de Ahuano and on to Gaia Amazon Lodge. There, we started our Spanish lessons and enjoyed several days of outdoor activities on the river. The jungle is an amazing place, full of incredible wildlife. Much to Cindy’s relief, we managed to avoid seeing too many spiders and having any of them enter our cabana. We did, however, have a pet Tarantula who lived under our cabana and who came out to hunt every night. We nicknamed him Tim in honour of one of the other guests, who really liked spiders!
Across to Montañita
After a few days in the jungle, we headed west back up over the Andes and down to Montañita to start our Spanish lessons at Montañita Spanish School. This involved taking a taxi from the Gaia Lodge to the river, crossing the river in an outrigger canoe, taking another taxi to the Tena bus station and then taking two separate buses across to Montañita, changing at Guayaquil.
The first bus ride was eight and a half hours long. We didn’t get much sleep because the seats were so uncomfortable and because they played violent action movies at full volume until at least midnight. The bus only stopped once for a toilet break halfway through. We still haven’t figured out why although all the buses have a toilet on board, most of them won’t let you use it.
Guayaquil bus station is massive. It is several stories high, with buses arriving on multiple levels. Fortunately, we only had to wait less than an hour for our next bus. The bus to Montañita only took about two and a half hours and we arrived there around nine in the morning, pretty exhausted.
So that was June. All in all a pretty action-packed month in Ecuador. Stay tuned for what we get up to in July, including how we handle two weeks of intensive Spanish lesson!