If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by Ecuador and really didn’t know much about it at all prior to commencing the South American leg of my trip. As I write this, I realise what an underrated, exceptional country it is!
From the moment I crossed the border into the country, I felt the people were warm and helpful – even the border control officials who are typically cold as ice! I could tell from that moment, I’d enjoy my time here.
I spent just short of 3 weeks in the country and am blown away by its diversity. From that first bus ride to Otavalo, through high-altitude mountain passes littered with volcanoes, right through to whale watching on the South Pacific, Ecuador has completely exceeded my expectations and really shouldn’t be overlooked when planning a South American trip.
Here’s a summary of how I spent 3 weeks here.
Otavalo (4 days):
Otavalo is a great place to base yourself after crossing into Ecuador from Colombia. It’s a 4 hour bus ride from the border along windy, mountainous roads from where you can spot numerous massive mountains and volcanoes – it’s a beautiful ride and, for me, was one that made me realise that Ecuador is worthy of much more hype than it gets.
Otavalo is best known for its gigantic market that although is active all week, really comes into full force at the weekends. I found this to be the most authentic craft market I’ve seen in my travels as it consists only of local crafts made by people in the villages surrounding the city. You won’t see any knock off Louis Vuitton handbags and mobile phone accessories here – a welcome respite from the shit one usually finds in markets world-wide.
The real attraction is just outside Otavalo in the form of the nearby volcanoes. If you’re keen to go hiking around 2 major ones, you can read my experiences on Laguna de Cuicocha and Mount Fuya Fuya.
Quito (5 days – including a visa run):
As the capital of Ecuador, you know it’s going to be a big, sprawling city. Most of the action is concentrated around the historic centre and the best way (for me, at least) to get a grip of the history of the place is to sign up for a walking tour. The nightlife is also great here with Quito’s abundance of bars. Bring your ID – no matter how old you are, you need to show it to get into a bar.
My plan was initially to spend 2 days in the capital but I realised I needed a visa for Bolivia in the not too distant future so I hung around for a few more days whilst the Bolivian Consulate in Quito processed my application. If you’re a South African, you do need a visa for Bolivia. You can read my guide on how to get one here.
The Quilotoa Loop (4 days):
This is a 4 day/3 night loop that will take you trekking through the small villages of Sigchos, Isinlivi, Chugchillan and eventually Quilotoa. The highlight of the trek is seeing the Quilotoa crater lake (to be accurate, the Quilotoa volcano collapsed upon itself during its eruption so this crater lake is technically also the volcano beneath the surface).
You can read my blog post on my experiences doing the Quilotoa Loop here.
Puerto Lopez (2 days):
Puerto Lopez wasn’t on my horizon at all. My original plan was to skip the Pacific coast and the Galapagos Islands on this trip (primarily due to the ridiculous costs associated with going to the Galapagos – I need to be earning a salary to go there!). Having said this, 2 fellow backpackers I met on the Quilotoa Loop told me about their amazing experiences whale watching from Puerto Lopez. It just so happens that July/August is prime whale watching season too and the temptation was too much for me to ignore, so I jumped onto a bus to see what all the fuss was about.
I wasn’t disappointed. Seeing Humpback whales in their natural habitat is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen! They’re gentle giants and I was blown away by their size and grace. One surfaced close to our boat and just the sound of it breathing was enough to cover me in goosebumps! My photo blog from Puerto Lopez can be found here.
Banos and Cuenca (6 days):
Whilst Banos didn’t blow me away, I can see the appeal of the place with its host of adrenalin enduring activities. I do think the town is developing a mass tourist following as so many people rave about it for (I suspect) the sake of raving about it. I’ve heard Mindo could be a decent alternative to Banos but can’t comment having not been there.
Cuenca, on the other hand, was super. It gives off a laid back, comfortable feeling whilst being full of beautiful Spanish architecture. The food is great too and it’s a superb place to spend a few days relaxing in anticipation of the border crossing into Peru if you’re heading that way.
You can read my blog post on Banos and Cuenca here.