On a plane!… We were finally able to take a flight instead of a bus ride thanks to Farima’s Insomnia. She was able to find a good deal from Cali to Quito one night when she couldn’t sleep. We stayed in the New Town part of Quito, which was basically packed with tourists and tour agencies alike. Farima and I spent almost the entire next day going from one tour agency to the next trying to find the best last minute deal with the most desirable itinerary for the Galapagos. I finally decided on a 5 day/4 night cruise starting in Santa Cruz Island, and going to Santa Fe, Espanola, Floreana, and then back to Santa Cruz. As the cruise didn’t leave until April 10th, I had 9 days to explore other parts of Ecuador beforehand.
The tour agency I booked the cruise with, offered a free day trip of my choice to Otavalo or Cotopaxi, which was included in the package deal. Although we would have liked to check out Otavalo – a village north of Quito and known for its huge (biggest in Ecuador!) outside markets and typical South American vendors, we decided to climb a volcano instead (good prep for Machu Picchu!). Ecuador is home to 62 volcanoes, 8 of which are still active. The volcano we climbed, Cotopaxi, is the 3rd largest active volcano in Ecuador. Our trek up started early in the morning as we prepared to ascend the famous Volcano. Surprisingly, as it was one of the first highest altitudes we have experienced so far, we were unaffected by the height as we reached an elevation of 5,000 meters (the start of the glaciers and ice caps), but man was it cold! We weren’t able to climb all the way to the peak as you need technical equipment and ice picks, but I hope to one day return and summit to the top! Even at 5,000 meters, we were surrounded by spectacular views of Ecuador’s other major peaks and volcanoes.
After climbing back down to the base where our bus was stopped, we hopped on bicycles and rode down quite a bumpy road back to the entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. Since it was mostly downhill, we were in for a thrilling ride. Back at the entrance, we boarded the bus to be taken to a quiet little cottage called PapaGayo, where we stayed the night. It was the perfect place to relax, unwind, and take a dip in the Jacuzzi after a full day of physical activity and early morning wake up calls.
The next day, we were headed to explore another volcano, this time famous for the lake that was formed in its crater, Laguna Quilotoa. On our way there, we stopped to explore one of the indigenous markets of Ecuador. We found there were three different types of markets. The first was the poultry market where you don’t just buy meat, but the animal itself. In this market, you are able to bid on all types of animals including cows, llamas, pigs, chickens, etc. and carry them home with you. Second, there is the fruits/vegetables market where you can purchase fresh fruit and vegetables mainly grown by the people selling it. Last but not least, there is an artisanal market where you can buy all sorts of hand-made goods including jewelry and clothing. I ended up buying a pair of tights here in preparation for the colder nights during our future hikes.
After the market and in the same direction of our way to the Lake, we stopped to visit an indigenous family who all lived together in a hut style house in the middle of the mountains. The first thing we noticed walking up to the house was a flag with all the colors of the rainbow. Before you jump to any conclusions… we learned that this flag was representative of the indigenous tribes still living according to their customs and lifestyles pretty much all over South America. The family we visited was a family of 6, who produced and made everything they needed and lived off their land. I am typically not a fan of visiting local families as part of a tour as I feel I am being intrusive and invading their privacy and as I feel it would be a bit strange if things were turned around. However, our tour guide assured us that the family agrees to such visits beforehand as the tips and payments we as visitors give the family at the end of the tour, provide them with extra cash and income they can put towards their living expenses. After the visit, we continued our journey to Lake Quilotoa.
Lake Quilotoa was formed 800 years ago by a massive eruption and subsequent collapse of the volcano. It took us about 45 minutes to descend down to the crater where we reached the water. Farima, Gareth, and I rented Kayaks for $2 and spent our 20 minutes of free time kayaking inside a volcanic crater, which was a pretty awesome experience. The views from inside the crater looking up gives you a completely different perspective than what we had experienced climbing down, however both gorgeous and breathtaking, I’m glad to have experienced both!
Unfortunately, the hike back up wasn’t as enjoyable… not because of the views but because it was a steep incline that took about an hour to reach the top with the sun beating down on us. Once at the top, the pain was merely a memory as we were once again surrounded by spectacular views of the incredible crater filled with turquoise blue water… really an awe-inspiring sight! We had lunch at a local restaurant in the town of Quilotoa and then returned to the bus to head back. Most people were headed back to Quito, but the three of us wanted to continue on to a town called Banos. We were dropped off at what looked like a toll stop (much like the toll roads in California) and were told to catch the bus to Banos there. Our tour guide had told us it was a blue bus with the sign Banos on the front window. As we waited on the side of the road in the dark and tried to wave down this bus, it passed right by us! Finally, we got lucky and had a security guard come to our side of the road telling us we needed to wait on the dividers in the middle of the road in order to catch the right bus to our next destination. So we waited on the middle dividers that separate the lanes of the toll and when the Banos bus pulled through we jumped on! This experience continues to remain the weirdest way I have had to catch a bus… ever… so far.