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Quilotoa is the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos). Its large crater is filled with a beautiful green lake, 250 metres in depth. The colour of the lake is due to the various minerals that have dissolved in its waters.
We came to Quilotoa with Jose Luiz, on the morning after our overnight stay in the hacienda near Cotopaxi. Having stopped for a while in the market at Pujili, and been held up in roadworks, it was late morning when we arrived. Later the day was to get very rainy, even stormy, but for now it was dry but with low cloud. Although I had hoped to see the lake in sunshine, I have to say that the gloomy light made it very atmospheric and brought out the green colours very effectively.
There is a path down to the lake from the viewpoint, but we decided not to walk down – partly because of the weather, partly because of my dodgy knee, and partly because we were later than we’d planned and it became a choice between a walk or lunch! So instead we just took a shorter walk a little way along the path round the rim (the full circuit would take the best part of a day). If you do decide to go down it’s possible to hire mules to bring you back up by the way.
We then had lunch in the small community-run café right by the viewpoint (lentil soup and pork chop), sitting by a cosy log fire. As we ate a thick fog descended, hiding both lake and the houses of the small village just below us from view, so we felt we’d made the right decision not to go down, although the clouds did lift again briefly as we left to give us a final view.
On our way back to where the car was parked we stopped in the nearby crafts cooperative where local people have stalls to sell their handiwork. Here we bought a small Tigua painting from a young girl for $5 (we didn’t haggle as the price was so reasonable and the girl so young). Tigua is a collection of small Andean communities in this area, whose artists have become renowned for their paintings, on sheep hide, of colourful rural scenes, and I was pleased to have this small example of this traditional folk art.
For more about our visit to Quilotoa please see my small separate page.
Next tip: CuencaRelated to:
- National/State Park
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I love mountain scenery, so a visit to Cotopaxi while in Ecuador was a must! And the mountain did not disappoint, although for several reasons I was not at my best that day to appreciate it in all its glory.
We drove south from Quito with Jose Luiz, from Surtrek, along the Panamerican Highway, here known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes because it passes between the eastern and western ridges of the Andes with several active and inactive volcanoes, of which the highest and most famous is Cotapaxi. It had been bright when we left the city but soon clouded over rather, though some of the volcanoes could be seen – Cotopaxi however was hidden from view. Jose Luiz suggested that we delay our drive up the mountain as he thought the weather might improve in a bit, so we stopped at a rose-growing farm, which proved more interesting than I had anticipated. But I was eager to get up the mountain, especially as I had a bit of a headache and was concerned that it might get worse – it did :-(
We entered the National Park that surrounds and protects the mountain, although on these lowest slopes the land is nevertheless used for timber and shows too many signs of human interference. But as we passed through the official entrance station the scenery grew more wild and dramatic, although Cotopaxi itself remained stubbornly hidden from view. But Jose Luiz remained optimistic. It was quite usual, he said, for this side to be in cloud but for the far side, where we were headed, to be much clearer. And so he was right. As we climbed, we rounded the mountain, and the peak of the volcano was revealed. We stopped in the car park, from where it is possible to walk up to the snow line. But the altitude (we were now at 4,300 metres) made my headache almost unmanageable, and my bad knee was another reason not to attempt the climb. So we contented ourselves with taking photos from this point, and even so, I soon had to return to the car and beg Jose Luiz to drive down a little!
We stopped though en route to see some of the hardy plants that grow in this altiplano landscape, here in Ecuador known as paramo – the national plant chuquiragua, valerian, lupine and others. We also saw an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird here.
Back at 3,800 metres on the Limpiopungo plateau I felt a little better. We had a good lunch at a lodge in the park, with glimpses of Cotopaxi and another volcano, Ruminahui, when the clouds permitted. After lunch we stopped for a short walk by the Laguna Limpiopungo, where we saw lots of birds, before leaving the park and driving to the hacienda where we were to spend the night. By this time it was raining, and we saw another aspect of the landscape here – bleak and rather forbidding but at the same time eerily beautiful.
For more about our day in the Cotopaxi area please see my separate page.
Next tip: PujiliRelated to:
- National/State Park
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Papallacta is a small Andean town 67 kilometres east of Quito, known for its hot springs. We decided to splurge on a night at its most upmarket hotel, the Termas de Papallacta, and were not disappointed. We had a great time here, although the weather was mostly rather dull and even at times drizzly.
Our room was a lovely wooden cabin with a small hot pool right outside. Guests here also have free use of an area with larger pools on the hotel’s grounds, but as this is open to the general public and busy at weekends (we were here on a Sunday) we were advised that we might want to consider paying a small extra fee to use the spa’s more secluded pools, which we did. We had a wonderful soak here, and I also visited the spa for an Andean mud wrap! In the evening we enjoyed a very good dinner (local trout) in the hotel’s restaurant. The next morning there was time for a short walk – there is an extensive network of trails, some of which you can walk alone while for others you are required to take a guide.
If you’re on a budget you can still visit Papallacta as buses from Quito serve the town (though the hot springs are some distance from the road down a mud track) and there are much cheaper accommodation options. But we enjoyed our splurge and I highly recommend a stay at the Termas if you can manage it. Just bring a warm jumper as it gets very chilly here at night, being considerably higher even than Quito, at 3,225 metres.
For more about our stay at Papallacta please see my separate page.
Next tip: CotopaxiRelated to:
- Spa and Resort
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A visit to Otavalo market must be one of the most popular of day trips from Quito. It can be done on local buses, through a tour booked in the city, or with a private guide as we did. To be honest, when planning our Ecuador trip, a visit here wasn’t one of my top priorities and with relatively little time in Quito I had considered giving it a miss as we’d seen many colourful markets elsewhere, for example in Guatemala two years ago. But then I had second thoughts and when our tour company proposed including it I went along with the suggestion. On balance I think it was good decision as we enjoyed our visit and it is one of the sights of northern Ecuador.
There is a market in Otavalo every day of the week, though Saturday, when we went, is one of the biggest and busiest days. Locals, mainly indigenous people, come from miles around to sell their various handicrafts – woven goods, musical instruments, paintings and much more. And tourists come from even further afield to buy them! Although not avid holiday shoppers, we did do our bit for the local economy, buying a small painting and a necklace for me – and at the last minute, a scarf too, when accosted by a woman selling them on the street near where we were waiting for our guide, Jose Luiz, to pick us up.
But the main attraction for us was in photographing the colourful market sellers in their traditional costumes. I have to confess to using the zoom lens to take quite a few candid shots, as only a couple were willing to pose. We also stopped for a refreshing fruit juice at a café, Buena Vista, on the south side of the market place, which has good views of all the action from its first floor windows.
For more about our visit to Otavalo please see my separate page.
Next tip: Cotacachi
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We spent four nights in Quito at the start of our holiday, a couple more between tours to various places in the north, and two more at the end of the trip. I grew to really like the city – the contrast between its traffic-filled, somewhat manic newer areas and the colonial quarter at its heart, and its situation in a cleft between the Andean volcanoes. This situation has resulted in the city developing in an unusually thin and long shape – only 5 km at its widest east-west point, but about 40 km from north to south. It is also unusually high – at 2,800 metres above sea level, the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.
The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.
We spent most of our time here in the city’s colonial heart, which was one of the first two places in the world to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (the other was Krakow in Poland). We visited many of its churches, people-watched in its attractive plazas, wandered its streets and ate in its restaurants at night.
But we did venture further afield at times. We were lucky enough to have friends in the city, or rather, the parents of a London friend, who had offered to spend time with us and introduce us to some parts of the city that they especially thought we would like. So with Betty and Marcelo we enjoyed the views from El Panecillo and the Parque Itchimbia, visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional and the Fundacion Guayasamin, ate in a couple of very good restaurants in the Mariscal, shopped in the market and toured some of the outlying districts such as Guapulo and Nayon.
We also had some tours outside the city with a guide, Jose Luiz, which we had arranged prior to departure from England as part of our tour package with Real Ecuador and their Ecuadorean partners, Surtrek. One was a day tip to Otavalo, famous for its market and to the Mitad del Mundo monument which marks the line of the Equator (although in practice it is slightly off the line as its location was based on a scientific survey carried out before the accurate measurements later made possible with GPS). Another was an overnight tour to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, and we also spent a night at the lovely Termes de Papallacta.
For more information about our time in Quito see my separate page.
Next tip: Lago San PabloRelated to:
- Historical Travel
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Mindo is a small town with about 2000 inhabitants, set in a valley surrounded by green hills with cloud forest vegetation. Because Mindo is situated at an altitude of 1250m the climate is very pleasant, not too cold and not too hot, but be prepare for rain though.
Mindo is a popular tourist destination and as Quito is only 2.5 hours away many people come here especially for the weekend. There are lots of things to do in and around Mindo for a visitor. Among other things there are great hikes to do, bird-watching (there are more than 400 bird species in the forests around Mindo), you can visit butterfly farms and orchid gardens and you can go zip-lining and tubing on the river. I wanted to do zip-lining and tubing but as I had broken my wrist I couldn’t do that. However, I hiked between the waterfalls in the Mindo-Nambillo Protected Forest and on the trails above Casa Amarilla, went on a chocolate tour, visited a butterfly farm and an orchid garden and ate very good trout.
On my Mindo travel page I have got more photos and written reviews about what to see and do in Mindo.
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Lago San Pablo
We stopped by this lake to the north of Quito on our way to Otavalo, at a roadside gift-shop and café (El Miralago) clearly strategically positioned to catch the tourist trade, with super views from its garden and local children posing with alpacas and llamas in return for a coin or two. But you can hardly blame them for cashing in like this, and since it gave us a chance to pause for refreshment as well as photos, and to help the local economy, I had no complaints!
The lake is volcanic in origin and lies at a height of 2,660 metres above sea level at the foot of Imbabura volcano, four kilometres west of Otavalo. The area around it is dotted with small indigenous villages, the largest of which shares its name with the lake, San Pablo del Lago. Later in the market at Otavalo I was persuaded to buy a scarf from a lady who told us she lived in this village, and showed us photos of her home and loom there.
We sat in the garden for a while and enjoyed a local treat of biscochos (biscuits, served with dulce de leche) and queso de hoja (a haloumi-like white cheese, served in cubes on a banana leaf). The views were great and it was a restful spot, despite the steady stream of other visitors. We didn’t buy anything in the shop, other than a couple of postage stamps, but it looked to have a range of souvenirs towards the tackier end of the spectrum, although as I didn’t have a proper look round I may be doing them a disservice!
Next tip: Otavalo Market
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The reason for the name.
In case you didn't know, the name of Ecuador is actually the Spanish word for Equator which is hardly surprising as the country straddles that imaginary geographic line. No visit to the country would be complete without a visit to it. Obviously you may cross and recross the line many times but the place to go is the main monument, known as La Mitad del Mundo which is situated about 15 miles North of Quito. It certainly was one of the highlights of my trip to the country. Sadly, whilst countless visitors have had their photo taken straddling the line ehich is supposed to be the Equator, it is actually not. Scientific developments (satellites and the like) now place the actual line about 250 yards from the line represented.
I will not give any precise details of costs, transportation to and from etc. as my information would be so far out of date as to be useless. There is no need to rate this tip for that very reason. Internet research suggests that current entry (as of December 2012) is $3US and the bus from the centre of Quito os $2:50US. This is a great saving on the $45US apparently being quoted for an organised tour so I suggest this if you are on a budget. I include it here merely as a suggestion for something you must not miss in Ecuador.Related to:
- Budget Travel
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We stopped in the small town of Pujili one morning on our way to Quilotoa, to visit the market. As we had been in Otavalo a few days before, I wondered whether this would be similar, but it was an altogether more local and authentic affair. No tourist handicrafts here, though one woman was selling the local felt hats. Instead, it was all about food! Live chickens, fresh fruits (many that I didn’t recognise but whose juices we realised we had been drinking once we heard their names from Jose Luiz), herbs and vegetables and more. We also saw several stalls selling the traditional Day of the Dead breads, guagua de pan. Most of the customers were locals (in fact, I don’t believe I saw any other tourists apart from ourselves) and were mainly intent on their shopping, though on one side of the square a small crowd had gathered around a girl who was singing and selling her CDs, and a nearby food stall was doing great business. It was a fantastic place for people watching (and photographing) and for getting a good introduction to local produce.
Next tip: Quilotoa
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After our morning at Otavalo market, Jose Luiz proposed that we went to a nearby town, Cotacachi, for lunch (which was included in our tour price). The town is known throughout Ecuador for its leather work, on items such as clothing, footwear, bags, belts and wallets. We strolled the length of the main street, where every shop it seemed was selling these leather goods – everything from tiny coin purses for a couple of dollars to very stylish handbags, jackets and even small pieces of furniture. Had we wanted to shop, we could have spent ages choosing, but as it was we soon tired of every shop looking the same! However a detour off the main road along Avenida Bolivar offered us a glimpse of this striking church which we were pleased to have seen, though there was no time to see if the interior was as interesting as the exterior.
Cotacachi is also considered to be a good place to get a taste of traditional Ecuadorean food. We spotted several places that looked tempting, but as lunch was included in our tour we had to go where Jose Luiz took us. I was at first disappointed to see that the large restaurant he stopped at was apparently catering just for tourists visiting with their guides, but I have to admit that the lunch we had there was excellent – a really good shrimp ceviche to start with, pork grilled outside in the garden to follow, and we could also have had desert though both Chris and I were too full and declined this. It was a pleasant, relaxing meal after the bustle of Otavalo market. Apparently Cotacachi is becoming a popular place for Americans especially to retire to, and I could see why it might appeal, set in the scenic highlands of northern Ecuador and with a good standard of living for relatively low prices. Too quiet for me though!
Next tip: Papallacta
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El Cajas National Park
We had originally planned to fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil – the first segment of a flight to the Galápagos, which later had to be split to suit changing airline schedules. But while in Quito we were contacted by Real Ecuador’s partners in Cuenca, Terra Diversa, to suggest we might prefer to drive so that we could see something of El Cajas National Park, the cloud forest, and the coastal scenery too. We jumped at the chance, and were very pleased to have done so. Firstly, it gave us an extra morning in Cuenca (our late morning flight would have meant leaving the hotel soon after breakfast, whereas for this drive we were picked up at 3.00 PM). And secondly, it gave us a chance to see more of the Ecuadorean landscape
The route through El Cajas National Park was incredibly scenic, and I’m sure with more time in Cuenca than we had it would merit a day trip from the city, which is easily arranged. The park is famous for its large number of lakes (270 according to Wikipedia, but our driver Carlos reckoned that if you counted even the tiniest there would be far more!) These are set in a rather stark landscape of moorland, here in Ecuador known as paramo, and rocky outcrops. Cajas means boxes in Spanish, and one explanation that is given for the name of the park is that it refers to this distinctive landscape, sometimes called knob and kettle geomorphology, where the outcrops alternate with lakes. Another possible explanation for the name is linked to the Quichua word "cassa" meaning "gateway to the snowy mountains”.
The highest point in the park is Cerro Arquitectos, at 4,450 metres, although the highest point on the road was just over 4,000 metres. We only stopped briefly for photos but if you have more time there are lots of hiking routes, from two to over thirty kilometres in length, the easiest of which is a two hour flat stroll around the Laguna Toreadora. It is also possible to walk a section of the old Inca Trail here. You can find descriptions of all the trails on the park website here.
There is a day use fee for the park of $10 per person (non-Ecuadoreans) and a further $4 if camping overnight. There are few facilities for the latter although there are designated areas for rough camping. If you are just driving through, as we were, you don’t need to pay the fee.
Next tip: GuayaquilRelated to:
- National/State Park
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For many years I have wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. Fortunately, the experience more than lived up to my expectations! A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special. One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood. Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him. On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured. And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.
We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea. No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits.
For more about our time in the Galápagos, please see my separate page about our cruise, and also small pages about the individual islands we visited, all linked from that main page.
Meanwhile, I will finish these tips about visiting Ecuador with a couple of warnings, starting with altitude sickness.Related to:
- National/State Park
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Hiking from Chugchilán to Quilotoa
Hiking from Chugchilán to Quilotoa is quite easy to do on your own. As you can see the rim of the Quilotoa crater from Chugchilán you will know the direction. I left Chugchilán after breakfast, but before leaving a man at the hostel drew me a simple map.
With the map it was easy to find the starting point of the trail in Chugchilán. For a while you walk along a dirt road past some houses, then you should take a path. The path leads down to the bottom of the canyon, where you cross a small stream. From here it is a quite steep ascend until you come to a level surface where there is a single house where you can buy something to drink (if it is open). Then you will continue along a small dirt road up to the village Guayamo. In Guayamo you turn right and follow the road out of the village till the end of it, where you take a path going up to the rim of the crater.
To the rim of the crater it took me 3 hours. Coming up on the rim you will be rewarded by a beautiful view over the Quilotoa lagoon. If you look back there is a stunning view over the valley and Chugchilán far away. Were you reach the rim it is very sandy and I took the only path I saw. It was a small path, with flowers growing on the sides, and it was going slightly downhill into the crater. After a while I realised it must be the wrong path so I took a very steep path up to the rim again. Finally I reached a path on the rim and continued to Quilotoa. I reached Quilotoa 4 h 15 minutes after I started the walk in Chugchilán.
Chugchilán is situated at 3200 metres and Quilotoa at 3900 metres, so many people choose to start the walk in Quilotoa. I don’t mind walking uphill, and often prefer that over a steep descend.
Along the hike I only met one group of hikers and they had a guide.
Uppdate 2012: I hiked from Chugchilán to Quilotoa in July 2012 too. This year it had become even easier as they had put up signs along the way. At the starting point in Chugchilán there is a sign saying “Excursión a Quilotoa 10.2km”, and then there were several more signs along the path. Signs indicating direction and distance were not the only new thing along the path, but at some places they had put up benches and dustbins too.
I had heard already in Chugchilán that it had been terrible windy in Quilotoa the last days but had hoped that it had become less windy the day I walked there. However, when I reached the crater rim I realised that was not the case as I was almost blown away by the strong wind. Luckily a large part of the remaining trail to Quilotoa was protected from the strongest winds. Also this year it took me 4h and 15 minutes to walk from Chugchilán to Quilotoa.Related to:
- Hiking and Walking
- Budget Travel
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Coca – Puerto Francisco de Orellana
Coca (Puerto Francisco de Orellana) is the capital of Provincia de Orellana and it is situated at the confluence of Río Coca and Río Napo, at an altitude of 300m above sea level. The climate is hot and humid and temperatures vary between 20-40°C. Since the 1980s Coca is fast growing because of the oil industry. It is a concrete town with a population of about 45 000 inhabitants.
Coca is the starting point for many jungle tours. Most tourists arrive by plane and are transferred to the docks from where they continue their journey down Río Napo to one of the jungle lodges. That is what I did, so I didn’t see very much of Coca. If you are staying longer there isn’t very much to do in the town for a tourist. You can visit the archaeological museum, take a stroll in Parque Central or along the Malecón or visit the market.
On my Coca travel page I have got travel tips about getting to Coca by plane from Quito and the boat ride on to Sani Lodge.
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Cascada San Rafael
Cascada San Rafael is Ecuador’s highest waterfall. It is situated in Río Coca on the border between Provincia de Napo and Provincia de Sucumbios. I can’t really tell how high it is as that information is different in different books and on different web pages, but the figures I have seen are between 131 – 160 metres. The waterfall has got two drops.
After I had eaten lunch at Hostería Reventador I walked down the road towards the starting point of the trail to Cascada San Rafael. There is a house there were you should register and pay an admission. It was closed when I arrived and even if I stood there under the roof for some time while it was raining no one appeared. When I returned back from the waterfall there was still no one there.
Just as I started to walk the trail I met three people, but after that I didn’t see anyone along the trail or at the waterfall. It is a quite nice feeling to walk all alone on the trail surrounded by lush green vegetation and only hear the sounds of nature. The trail is not very long, only 1.5km, and it took around 20 minutes to walk to the viewpoint of the waterfall. There are two viewpoints of Cascada San Rafael, a few minutes apart. The view is stunning and you can hear the roaring sound and see the force of the water.
In my guidebooks I had read there were two different trails, both longer than the one I took. I couldn’t find any other trail and was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t take a longer walk, and I would also have liked to see the waterfall from below as well. It might be that the road down to the trail head was not paved before, and thus counted as part of the trail. As there was no one else around I couldn’t ask for another trail, but maybe that was just good. I had recently had a terrible cold with temperatures and was not yet feeling well, and while walking back to Hostería Reventador the rain started to pour down, and it continued the whole afternoon.
About 20km upriver from Cascada San Rafael a hydroelectric dam and power plant is being built. It will start to operate in 2016. Some people say it will not affect the flow in the waterfall while many others disagree. I do really hope it will not ruin the waterfall.
You can easily visit on a daytrip from Baeza, which is 1.5 hours away by bus. You can also do as I did, stay the night at Hostería Reventador a few kilometers away from the waterfall, or only stop for a couple of hours on your way to Lago Agrio. If you come by bus and have a lot of luggage you might want to go to Hostería Reventador first to leave your luggage there (for a fee) while visiting the waterfall.
I have got more photos and information on my Cascada San Rafael page.Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- National/State Park
Traveled thur Quito on a Eco Tourism trip. The Marriott was unforgetable. Beautiful hotel in every...more
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Av. de las Amazonas, Banos, 2000, Ecuador
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