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.
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
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.
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
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
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: Guayaquil
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.
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.
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.
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.
On my last day in Ecuador in 2011 I read about the new Seven wonders of Quito. One of them was Santuario de la Virgen de El Quinche, situated about 60 km away from Quito. So, I thought this could be an interesting place to visit when I came back to Ecuador in 2012.
The present church in El Quinche, Santuario de la Virgen de El Quinche, was constructed in 1927 and it has a capacity for 966 seated persons and 3556 standing persons. One of the walls outside the church in El Quinche is full of plaques. These plaques are put up by people who have come here to thank the Virgin for her blessings and miracles.
Many pilgrims come to El Quinche throughout the year to get blessings from La Virgen de El Quinche and to thank her for miracles. Many miracles have been assigned to her and she is said to have saved people from serious accidents and illnesses. She is very popular among taxi and truck drivers. In November, and especially for the procession on November 21, big crowds of pilgrims come here. For this day many pilgrims walk all the way from Quito (about 60 km away).
The sculpture of La Virgen de El Quinche is a small wooden statue, only 62 cm high, and it is standing above the main altar in the sanctuary. It was made by the artist Diego de Robles in 1588 and in 1604 it was brought from Oyacachi to El Quinche.
It is said that whoever ordered the sculpture didn’t pay for it so Diego de Robles traded it for cedar wood with the Oyacachi people. They put it in a cave and sang songs to the virgin. It is said the virgin protected their children from being eaten by bears and she did miracles, like bringing a dead child back to life and harvesting a field of grains without any help of humans.
Another story says that the artist himself was saved from falling down into a deep ravine when his clothes got caught by a thorn. And since then many more miracles have been attributed to the virgin.
I have got more photos and tips on my El Qinche page.
Baeza is a small town situated on the eastern slopes of the Andes, above the Quijos valley. Baeza actually consist of three different parts. Down at the junction (La Y) where the highway from Quito forks there are a few buildings (one road continues to Lago Agrio and the other to Tena). Further up along the road to Tena you will come to Baeza Colonial and even further up, 2km from the junction, is Baeza Nueva. The valley was originally inhabited by the Quijos people, but in the 16th century Spanish missionaries came here, and in 1548 they founded Baeza.
I stayed in Baeza Nueva as most restaurants and hotels are there and as I didn’t have anything pre-booked I thought it was best to go there. It is not a big place. Most buildings are situated around the main road and along some side streets.
Baeza is surrounded by green hills and there are some trails you can take for nice walks. Birdlife is said to be good. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to explore as I arrived in the afternoon and went on to Cascada San Rafael the next day.
If you think the journey to the Oriente is too long Baeza can be a nice place to make a break in. There are a couple of places to stay in outside Baeza and after visiting I have also seen pictures of Hosteria Kopal Ecuador which looks very nice. I think it is situated in Baeza Colonial. Baeza is close to Sumaco National Park and to the Ecological Reserves of Antisana and Cayambe-Coca.
Isinliví is a small quiet village situated in the Andes at an altitude of 2900 metres. The village is surrounded by green mountains and farmland, and it is a very nice area to hike in. Many people who hike around the Quilotoa Loop only visit Chugchilan and Quilotoa, but I think Isinliví should be included too. It is greener around Isinliví.
Most tourists coming to Isinliví only stay a night on their way to or from Chugchilán. I did not want to be in a rush and thought it could be nice to stay in this small tranquil village for two nights and do some hiking nearby one day. I had not planed to visit the festival in Sigchos, but I’m glad I did. I still had some time for hiking when I came back.
Isinliví is situated southeast of Sigchos, about 45 minutes away by bus. From Latacunga it takes about two hours to Isinliví by bus.
I stayed two nights in Isinliví in 2011 and one night in 2012. I hadn’t planned to come back in 2012, but because I broke my wrist while traveling in Ecuador 2012, there was things I had planned to do which I couldn’t do (like climbing Chimborazo). At least I could hike and as I knew the area was beautiful, I knew the way between the villages, accommodation is cheap and I didn’t have to carry too much packing I thought it was a good idea to come back and do some hiking.
Puerto Lopez is a small town on the Ecuadorian coast with around 16 000 inhabitants. It is set in a bay with a long sandy beach in front of town and with green hills behind. Many people in Puerto Lopez work with fishing or tourism. The malecón can be a bit dusty and it would be nicer without the moto-taxis. Anyway it is a nice and relaxed place.
Along the malecón you will find many restaurants serving seafood, tour agencies and some souvenir stalls. On the beach there are several bars selling fruit juices, a nice place to spend a lazy afternoon in. Very early in the morning you can visit the fish market in the south end of the beach. Around Puerto Lopez there are many things to do, like visiting Isla de La Plata and the rest of Machalilla National Park. A highlight is to come here during the whale-watching season, June – September, and see the Humpback Whales jumping.
Temperatures in Puerto Lopez are often around 25-30°C. The colder, dry season is between June – November. The climate is then influenced by the cold Humboldt Current and the sky is often overcast. December – May is the rainy season, but then it often rains in the afternoon and between the rains it is sunny with blue sky, and high temperatures.
Machalilla National Park is situated in Provincia de Manabí, just north of Puerto Lopez. It is Ecuador’s only coastal national park (mainland) and it was created in 1979 to protect the unique tropical dry forest. A long time ago most of the coast used to be covered with dry tropical forest, but now very little remain, and almost all can be found within the national park. Among other plants you will see large Candelabra Cacti, Prickly Pear cacti, Yellow Geiger, Barbasco, Palo Santo trees and Ceibos.
The park consists of almost 40 000 hectares of land with tropical dry forest and humid cloud forest and around 20 000 hectares of ocean, which includes islands like Isla de La Plata and Isla Salango.
In Machalilla National Park I have visited Isla de La Plata, a beautiful island where you can see large seabirds like Blue-footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Frigate birds and Waved Albatrosses. As I visited during the whale-watching season (June – September) we also saw lots of humpback whales on our way back to the main land.
I have also visited Playa Los Frailes, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador. Besides Playa Los Frailes several small peaceful beaches can be found within the park.
Another place I have visited in the national park is Agua Blanca. During archaeological excavations traces of six different cultures have been found, and in the village Agua Blanca you can see some of the findings in the small museum, and in the surrounding area there is an important Manteño site, where the basement of many houses can be seen.
If I visit the area again I would definitely like to take the 4h hike to San Sebastian, which is situated more inland, at an altitude of 600 metres. In this area the surrounding vegetation is humid cloud forest.
From Puerto Lopez you can go on organized tours to the national park. To visit Isla de La Plata you must take a tour, but Playa Los Frailes and Agua Blanca I visited on my own, by taking a bus and then walking from the turnoffs.
I have got more photos and info on my Parque Nacional Machalilla page and on my Isla de La Plata page.
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Av. de las Amazonas, Banos, 2000, Ecuador
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