Friday, March 4, 2016

Ecuador Road Trip

Ecuador Road Trip

Tuesday 26 January – Wednesday 17 February, 2016


Getting the luggage off the boat with this crazy dock situation was our first task.  Next a taxi ride to the bus terminal in Santa Elena, next town over, finding where to buy tickets for a bus to Guayaquil then finding the bus to Guayaquil.  We are on our way just after 10 AM (very nice A/C buses).  2 ½ hour bus ride to Guayaquil, taxi ride to car rental, paperwork filled out, driving away in the car by 1:15 to come back almost to where we started.  Hard to believe no rental cars available closer to the marina, but that’s life in a foreign country.


Five miles from the marina in the town called Ballenita is a beautiful Hotel / restaurant / museum called Farallon Dillon.  We arrived there around 4 PM, showed to our beautiful sea-view room built into the rock cliff the hotel sits on.  Great views of the coast line and loved hearing the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks and shore without worrying about the boat.  The owner was a former captain in the navy and collected many eclectic items along his travels.  The place is full of nautical items new & old that we enjoyed looking at. 


Wednesday 1/27 on our way by 9:30 to head north up the coast on Ruta del Sol now renamed Ruta del Spondyls (thorny oyster). 

A little side note; we were using an app called Maps.Me, great app to use OFF line.  It always takes you via the shortest distance, even if that way is NOT the best road thus taking you twice as long since you have to drive so slowly.  It made for some VERY interesting travel on some very unbelievable roads. “I can't believe this is a road” was stated many times.  But it served us very well over our 22 days and 1360 miles.

The coastal road takes you thru / by many coastal towns and we stopped at two of the more popular ones (Montanita & Puerto Lopez) to stretch our legs and have lunch.  This route also has several scenic overlooks where you can pull off the road and enjoy the views.  A national park also, so our 175 mile / 4 ½ hour trip took us 8 ½ hours, including the police check point stop.  Arriving in Bahia de Caraquez at 6 PM, we did not have a hotel reservation as we were not sure of our arrival date.  Fellow cruisers Victoria and David on S/V Eva Marie had been in the area for a few months and had recently joined partnership with a local business expanding & relocating.  So they were getting ready for their grand re-opening of H sports Bar & Cafe (they do the cafe part).  We found the new location and visited with them for a while, enjoying a great margarita, then went and checked into the Buenavista Hotel and then went out for dinner. 


Thursday we enjoyed walking along the waterfront and up to the lookout point of a cross on a hill with great views of the area.  Had lunch at Puerto Amistad, a restaurant built out over the water as well as the official yacht agent / “marina” (no docks just moorings).  Many boats traveling to Ecuador come here, up the river, and stay on moorings.  We wanted to see it, and met Trip the expat owner who is also an ex cruiser and a wealth of information on boats and Ecuador.  He runs a great operation servicing the boats that come there, since we wanted to do land travel we felt better about leaving our boat in a marina.  Enjoy seeing the town, stop by H Bar & Cafe and visit with Victoria & David again.  Dinner that night at El Muelle Uno, great local food at low local prices right on the waterfront by the ferry dock. 


Friday 1/29, said goodbye to Victoria & David after having one of her wonderful cinnamon buns and were on our way by 10 AM.  Crossing over the Rio Chone via the 5 year old longest bridge in Ecuador.

The landscape along our coastal trip so far had been very dry, but we noticed a difference as soon as we crossed the river where everything started getting much greener.  Traveling up the coast 2 hours crossing back over the equator, before turning east for another 3 ½ ours that would take us up into the mountains and into the cloud forest of Mindo. Beautiful scenery along mostly good roads but the 2 lane road up thru the mountains had some rough spots, luckily the really bad part did not last too long.  Coming to Mindo was a last minute decision, so once in town by 3:30, we connected to the internet and found a hotel, and once booked finding the actual hotel was a little harder.  We learned during this trip that  map / directions can be way off !!!!  Driving up & down the “roads” looking for places would make for a good comedy skit.  In our cozy little room by 5 at Cabanas Armonia y Jardin de Orquides, relax a little before walking to town for dinner at El Quetzal. 


Saturday we enjoy breakfast in the hotels garden surrounded by hummingbirds feeding at the feeders. 

Another reason the hotel was hard to find it's a mini jungle of plants and trees, hard to see the hotel from the road.  A sunny day as we start off to go up to the zip line.  Fun time with great views looking over the town / valley.  Next stop the waterfalls, there are several, after hiking down to the first one then you hike up to the others.  We just almost made it to the first one when the skies opened up pouring rain. Glad there was a covered area, no seats but at least we were out of the rain not getting more wet.  Several people came in after us soaking wet.  After about 30 minutes rain slowed a little, I had rain gear so suited up and we made our way back.  The path was muddy coming down and we wanted to go before it got worse by too many feet walking back over it.  Glad we did when we got back to the top, there was a huge group waiting to go down.  That path would have turned dangerous with landslides.  Back to town by 1 for lunch before heading out to Quito.  Driving up out of the valley over the mountains then down into Quito.  Checked into Hotel Real Audiencia in the old historic section of Quito by 5 PM.  Driving a car in downtown Quito is NOT recommended, once we finally found the hotels parking garage the car stayed there until we left.  Not that we needed it, as most of the sites we wanted to see were within walking distance of our hotel.  Hot showers, Steve's clothes were still damp from being caught in the rain, and relax in the room.  Later walked a couple of blocks down to the pedestrian street known as La Ronda enjoying the Saturday night activities on the street before finding a place for dinner.


Sunday 1/31, after breakfast we were scheduled with the hotel to go on a van tour with another couple.  At 8:30 we met in the hotel lobby and Fernando our guide had us in the van & on our way to the cable car Teleferiqo.  Located on a hill on the active volcano Pichincha, just west of downtown takes you from 9,680 feet up to 13,280 for views of the city.  We had a partly cloudy day so the views were not spectacular but still pretty great.  As an added bonus when we came down from the cable car, at a meeting hall, they were having a dog show that we got to go in and watch for a little while.  Next stop north of town to the Mitad Del Mundo and Museo De Sito Intinan.  The first being where in 1736 the French Scientists measured & determined the shape of the earth and the location of the equator.  They were off by about 600 feet, where the 2nd tourist attraction is located.  Even that one is off a little depending on the grade of GPS you are looking at and the time of year.  Both were fun to visit.  Ecuadorian lunch down in town by Parque La Carolina at Mi Cocina.  After lunch we went to the to the former home now a museum of Ecuador’s most famous artist – Museo Guayasamin.  He was also a collector of Pre-Columbian art that the home is full of, he is buried in the garden under the “tree of life” on the grounds.  Next to his home is the Capilla del Hombre / Chapel of man.  It was completed after he died in 1996, and filled with his paintings dedicated to the struggles endured by the indigenous people of the Americas.  This was the highlight of the day.  Back to the hotel at 5:30, showers & relax before going out to dinner.  Sunday the streets driving all day and at night walking were very quiet compared to Saturday.


Monday 2/1, we have an 8:30 appointment at the French Embassy to apply for our long stay visa in French Polynesia.  Have a taxi scheduled to pick us up at 7:30, arrive there by 8, early so go wait at the nearby McDonald’s.  Back to embassy we meet with Maria and she reviews our paper work and ask us a few questions, all is in order, we are fingerprinted, pay the fee and are done by 9.  Taxi back to the hotel, change of clothes as it had warmed up and can be more casual walking the streets.


We spend the rest of the day walking around “Old Town” Quito (AKA Quito Colonial or Centro Historico), seeing the beautiful churches, plazas, & architecture of the buildings.  We see why it is on the UNESCO world heritage site.  We luck out and see a ceremony going on in La Plaza de la Independencia.  We find out it is the changing of the guards at the presidential palace that takes place every Monday between 10:30 – 11:30 AM.  Very cool to see, the current president has chosen not to live there but comes in daily and he was up on the balcony during the ceremony.  More walking around seeing the sights, up to the Basilica where we climb up one of the steeples and then one of the towers giving us great views of the city.  Stop at a local place for the set menu meal of the day & have a good full lunch for $3.25 each.  More sightseeing then a break for a beer & diet coke. I check email and see a message from the French Embassy that there was a problem with our paperwork and I need to go back.  It is 3:30 so I try to call them, no luck getting thru, send them a message to say we are on our way back.  Maria had entered the wrong amount on my receipt so it had to be redone, scanning my fingerprints with the correct receipt.  Back to the hotel around 5 to relax and clean up before going out to dinner. 


Tuesday we signed up for a free walking tour, we normally try to do these when we first arrive but we had other plans.  Even though we knew we would be covering some of the same ground we did the day before it was still worth it to hear some of the history behind the buildings from our guide. We had checked out of the hotel and had our bags in the car ready to go after the tour which started at 10:30.

By 1:30 we were getting in the car for our drive north to Lago San Pablo.    


Our drive north takes us thru some dry barren lands before turning green & lush, as we make our way over and around the mountains. Patchwork valleys with volcanoes in the background make for some beautiful scenery along the way.  Arriving in the town of San Pablo and the town of Araque where our hotel is supposed to be.  Can't find it luckily the phone works and we are able to call.  Reto the owner answers and says he will come meet us to show us the way.  Good thing as it is no where near where had it.  Up a dirt “road” with huge rocks and potholes to avoid, we were glad to make it up there with our little rental car.  Not what we were expecting but great views of the lake and surrounding towns, with the volcano Imbabura behind us.  Suitcases in our room, we ask about getting something to eat since it is almost 5 PM and we had not eaten since breakfast.  There was supposed to be a restaurant on site but there is not.  Back down to town via a better road to see if we can find a place to eat.  Not a lot of choices but we find a little place and both have a piece of chicken & FF Steve a beer for $5.  Our room, is nice enough, bathroom and shower are part of same building but only outside access.  Not a real problem until 3 AM when it is really cold outside so shoes and clothes are needed to go to the bathroom. 


Wednesday 2/3 after breakfast is served at the sitting area outside our room we venture out to go to Peguche waterfall located in a forested park next to an indigenous village.  The people of this area still dress and work in their traditional ways and are known for their artisan wares.  Next stop up to the Condor Park, once again our car traveling over some punishing roads.  Slow day for the park, only 3 other people there besides us.  Nice grounds with some great views, but only one Condor, a lot of other hawks and owls and even 2 bald eagles.  Back down to the “town” we had driven past, and read about a lake front hotel that had a restaurant, so we stopped there on our way back.  A little too early for dinner so we had some hot tea & enjoyed the grounds while waiting for dinner time.  I talked to the reception desk to ask if they had any room rate specials, she told me on Friday the rooms would be ½ price for kick off to carnival $135 down to $67, I book us a room.  A nice dinner before heading back up to our hotel.  Dark 8:30 instead of driving all the way to the 1 good road, we passed one that looked decent, they all lead UP which is where we had to go so we took it.   Not the best decision has it soon deteriorated into huge ruts with loose big rocks all around.  At one point we briefly slid backwards on the loose gravel, but we made it and arrived safely back in our room.


Thursday we go to Lake Cuicocha, an active crater lake near another volcano, Cotacachi.  A great hiking path along the ridge of the crater gave us some spectacular views of the lake, volcanoes and pasture lands around.  The beauty surrounding you on that trail was amazing.  2 PM time for some lunch but the tour boat was getting ready to go out so we did that first.  Taking us around the lake looking up at cliffs and the 2 small islands in the middle.  A stop to show us the gas bubbles in the lake, unfortunately the guide only spoke Spanish so his information was lost on us, still enjoyed the views.  Afterward lunch where Steve has his first guinea pig.  On our way back we stop at the town of Otavalo, known for its market in the main square  It is after 5 PM so things are winding down but glad we get to see it, less people to say no gracias to as we did not need to buy anything just like looking.  Stop in to the grocery store getting a few drinks and snacks for the room as we did not want to go back out for dinner later after the late lunch.


Friday after breakfast and settling our bill with Hosteria Samay Toa, we go check into Cabanas del Lago.  It was an overcast day and we wanted a break from driving on bad roads, so after they let us into our lovely room early we just hung out enjoying the room and the hotel grounds having lunch & dinner there. 


Saturday 2/6 we check out at 11:30 & are on our way back to Quito, this time staying at La Coupole Hotel in “New Town”.  A great find at a bargain price on, and this time they even had the correct location, we are in our lovely room by 2.  We are making another stop in Quito to meet up with a longtime friend of Steve's, Andrew, who is in Ecuador working.  Years ago he & Steve both worked for Exxon, Andy is now a consultant and we had been in touch knowing our time in Ecuador would overlap.  His work put him up in Esmeraldas so meeting in Quito that weekend was the plan.


Andy and his friend Bryant were just down the street finishing up lunch so they came down to our hotel to meet us.  Bryant, from Quito but has lived in the US, showed us around the area.  A very lively section of the city with many restaurants bars and hotels.  Stopping at the Republica Del Cacao for afternoon coffee and hot chocolate, while visiting with Andrew and Bryant learning about Quito & Ecuador.  Ecuador has 3 different regions specializing in 3 different varieties of chocolate, thanks to Bryant gifting us with some we got to enjoy them during the rest of our travels.  Back to our hotel, Andrew to the Hilton a few blocks away and Bryant home to clean up and change for dinner.  Dinner out at Cats, then down the street for some live music.  After talking so much during dinner we arrived just as the band was playing their last song, they did come out for an encore so we got to hear 2 songs.  Taxi back to the hotel sometime after 1 AM.


Sunday a holiday weekend the streets were even more quiet than the week before.  Seems like most people left the city for the long weekend, which we witnessed on our way back into town the day before - the traffic going north was bumper to bumper for miles & miles.  On a 2 lane road not much you can do, just glad we were going in the opposite direction.  Great breakfast at the hotel then walked the few blocks to the Hilton to meet Andrew.  A little stroll across the street to Parque El Ejido, where vendors set up selling their wares.  Bryant meets up with us and we go to Old Town, to see a couple of museums we had missed.  Even Bryant is surprised how empty the streets are, but not everyone left town as we come across a small carnival parade.  To Casa Del Alabato Museo, the building itself is a colonial house with a beautiful courtyard in the center.  The rooms are set up with different themes describing the Pre-Columbian artifacts, which most are in amazing shape.  Added bonus is the signs are in English & Spanish as well as the English audio recording describing the meaning of the different themes.  A great museum.  Time for a little coffee / tea break and a snack as Bryant answers many questions about his country.   A stop at the Museo De La Ciudad, an old colonial building which was once Hospital San Juan de Dios from 1565 to 1974 !  They had some interesting displays of old medical instruments.   Back to the hotel to clean up & change for dinner with an old friend, great to catch up with Andrew, and a new friend, great having Bryant show us around.


Monday 2/8, since carnival celebrations were still going on in parts of the country & hotels were booked, we delayed going to Baños, and stopped at Hacienda La Cienega.  It was close to Cotopaxi National Park that we wanted to go by.   Our visit to the park was disappointing as cloud cover blocked the 19,347 foot high Cotopaxi volcano that last erupted in August 2015 – yes just a few months ago.  Some of the roads in the park were still closed due to that eruption.  We did get to walk around a lake, not very pretty but a nice walk and some good views of the dormant rock face of Volcano Ruminawi.  On to the “hotel” a 17th century hacienda, with a huge courtyard garden & even its own chapel.  Our room, actually a suite was quite luxurious.  The following day was even more overcast & cloudy so no reason to go back to the park, we just walked around the area of the hotel.  A film crew showed up and set up to do some scenes for a movie.  Pretty fun watching but they had to do a lot of work for a little action, they were there late into the night. 


Wednesday 2/10, 8 AM departure another cloudy day, on & off rain as we descend into the valley and the town of Baños traveling thru the clouds.  By 10:30 we are in our room at Hostal Posada del Arte, great little hotel.  Baños is known for its outdoor activities, hiking, biking, rafting, etc. the temperature is warm but we still had drizzling rain.  We walk around town & visit the town waterfall just a few blocks away.  Walk some more to find a nice lunch spot, Casa Hood, before returning to the hotel where I go next door for a massage while Steve reads by the fireplace in the hotel lobby.  Later out for dinner the restaurant we were looking was closed, so walked around some more finding another, lots of choices in town. 


Thursday the weather is a little better so we take the car to travel the Ruta de las Cascadas.  Under sunny skies and dry roads renting a bike to travel this route would have been the choice.  Leaving the town passing the dam we come to the first waterfall, and see there is a cable car and a zip line to cross over the gorge to the other side.  Still lightly raining so after a few pictures think we will just take the cable car over, but the rain stops so we go for the zip line.  You have 3 options of how you want to cross, regular = sitting upright, upside down ??, or as we chose superman style.  They have a great set up for this putting your legs in another harness behind you.  Very fun & great view of the waterfall from above.  Rain started up again so instead of walking up a muddy path to zip line back we took the cable car back.  Traveling up the road we were shocked at how many zip lines they had going over the gorge.  A lot of stops along the way to pull over & view the beautiful scenery.  Arriving at Rio Verde and El Pailon del Diablo (Devil's Cauldron).  Hiking down into the Gorge you come to the entrance where you then hike up Grieta al Cielo (Crevice to Heaven) a path CUT into the rocks going up behind the waterfall, it was awesome .  With all the rain the waterfall was in great form an impressive sight !!


Friday more rain, we were able to get out and walk around town some more but conditions were not favorable for outdoor activities.  I had another massage, apparently a popular occupation in Baños as there were a lot of them to choose from all very inexpensive, $20 -$30 for 60 – 90 minutes !   For dinner we went to the Taberna Armenia restaurant that was closed the night before and had a wonderful meal.                 


Saturday 2/13 we left by 7 AM so the hotel had made a to-go bag breakfast for us.  We were taking a longer scenic route to get to our next destination.  We were hoping the rain and clouds would clear as we drove up out of the valley, and it did some, but then the clouds hung around as we made our way up and around the mountains.  When we could see it looked beautiful, but it got a little tense as visibility was really low and cars still were passing on blind curves.  Suddenly it started to clear, and we could see Chimborazo Volcano off in the distance.  It was an awesome sight with its snow capped peak.  Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador (20,564 Ft.) and lies within the Chimborazo Fauna Reserve Park.  The terrain is very dry and barren making the volcano stand out even more.  At the park entrance we have our bag breakfast, we are at 13,590 feet, then we drove (you can walk) up along a switchback road to 15,180 feet where the trails begin, going up to 18,000 ft, about 1,000 ft higher than Everest base camp.  This is high, very high.  If we were in an airplane, the oxygen masks would have dropped at 10,000 ft.  We have a little over half the oxygen we’d have at sea level.  We were feeling the effects of the altitude and by this time some clouds were forming so the top was not as visible, plus we were on a time limit as we had a train to catch at 2 PM.   Wish we could have spent a little more time there but it was so worth stopping there, another definite do not miss stop in Ecuador.   


We leave the park and continue to the town of Alausi where we will take a short train ride known as Nariz del Diablo (Devil's nose) train ride.  Back in the early 1900's the track was built to connect the city port of Guayaquil to the high roads leading to the capitol city of Quito.  The train descends on a very narrow track cut out of the mountains edge.  The turns are so tight that the train bypasses the turn then stops switch is moved and goes down backwards on the next track to the next turn where again it passes the turn switch is thrown and proceeds down the next section of track.  The train stops at a little village where they sell art work and have a very interesting museum about the people of the area and the building of the track. The track is still in use for other train travel.  Back on board back the way we came to the town of Alausi.  I had tried to contact one of the hotels in town to make a reservation but never heard back from them.  So we walked down Main Street to see what was available, several choices none any better than the other from what we could see.  Checked into Hotel San Pedro, and they had a gated drive to put the car (which later was jammed pack).  Got the room just in time as the town started to fill up with a lot of people coming in to take the train on Sunday (Valentine’s day).  Found a place for dinner then returned to our room that overlooked the main street for a noisy night of people and car alarm sounds.


Sunday 2/14 is market day in Alausi, so we walk around town a little seeing the sights before leaving at 9:30 to head to Cuenca.  Again more beautiful scenery as we drive up and around the mountains, they need more spots to pull over for lookout points along the roads in Ecuador.  Unlike the locals that feel safe and comfortable just stopping on the road wherever, we were not so inclined.  Arriving in Cuenca by 1 the street in front of our hotel is all torn up under construction.  Not that we would have been able to park out front as most of the streets are too narrow.  Most are also only one way, we find a place to park a few blocks away and walk back to the hotel.  We know it is too early to check in, first time actually had to wait, just want to know where to bring the car to unload the luggage.  The staff at Hotel Presidente were very helpful, the desk clerk called for help and soon another employee came and walked with us to bring the car around to the hidden drive behind the hotel.  Unloaded the luggage to hold at the front desk as the lot behind the hotel is only a temporary space and the car would be moved.  Walked around town finding a place for lunch, returning to the hotel by 3 to check into our room.  Just during the few hours from when we arrived till after lunch, we could see the traffic thinning out and being Sunday most of the shops were closed.  By the time we went out to dinner it was very quiet, several of the restaurants we went to were closed but we found a very nice place called Chalupa and had a great Valentines dinner.  The city looks beautiful at night with all the lights shining on the churches and old buildings. 


Monday we got on one of the city tour buses, taking about 2 hours to go around pointing out some of the city sites.  It stops for about 30 minutes at Mirador de Turi which gives great views of the city.  Afterward we walk to Pumapungo, one of the sights pointed out on the bus, the remains of the Inca city of Tumipamba.   A small complex but interesting with beautiful gardens and a bird display showing how they were part of the Inca lives.  Finding a place for lunch just before they closed at 3, interestingly enough run by expats from Wisconsin, former Peace Corps volunteers.  Walking back by the central park and the cathedral I see people on top, so we go in and ask, and yes you can climb up a brick spiral stairway to the rooftop for views over the city.  A delicious huge Pizza for dinner at Fabianos for dinner.   


Tuesday we have them bring the car around so we can drive an hour to El Cajas National Park.  NO volcano here but miles & miles of rugged terrain & some 200 lakes.  Loved seeing all the different terrains during our travels and loved being outdoors in cool / cold weather for a change.  We hiked around Laguna Toreadora the path got very muddy in spots, usually a way around on a llama path that was hard to tell from the people path.  Light rain during part of the hike and winds increased depending on which side of the lake we were on, another great day in another great park.  All the parks had an entrance gate to check in with, but all were free to go into.  They all had several fairly well marked trails to choose from short to a few hours to a couple of days.  We had left over pizza from the night before, so even though warm soup from the restaurant at the park sounded good we went with our cold pizza.  Back to the hotel warm showers before going out to dinner at Tiesto's that had been closed the 2 nights prior when we tried to go.  This is a restaurant that specializes in fixed price multi-course meals for two or more, and is one of the top rated in Cuenca.  We went al la carte, which got a frown, but then splurged on a bottle of wine that won back a smile.  The food and service were excellent.


Wednesday we are on our way back to Guayaquil to get a bus back to Santa Elena to get a taxi back to La Libertad and Puerto Lucia Marina and Ocean Star.  Turning the rental car in at the airport was a little tricky as no signs for Budget & no building.  Finally got them on the phone and managed to communicate that we wanted to turn the car in but could not find them.  Turns out you have to park in the airport parking lot, go inside to their desk where they come back out to the parking lot to check the car back in.  At the bus terminal after asking we found the right window to buy a ticket, then found the right gate for our bus to take us home.  Glad for a wonderful opportunity to see a part of the beautiful country of Ecuador, great to see a few old friends and great to meet some new ones.



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