Sun at last in Guayaquil but a nightmare journey to Puerto López

Frigate bird, Isla de la Plata

After years of travelling you can generally rely on a huge amount of experience to make things go smoothly, but occasionally you still make some classic mistakes. Last week my stupid decision was to travel to the beach on a holiday weekend. Everyone I spoke to in Guayaquil told me that it would be fine, everyone leaves on Thursday, no need to buy a ticket in advance. I arrived at the bus station early on Good Friday morning to scenes that wouldn’t be out of a place in a disaster movie. You know the kind – a tsunami warning has been given or an alien spaceship is hovering overhead, and the entire city is fleeing in stampedes.

Guayaquil, seen from Cerro Santa Ana

After weeks in the highlands of Colombia and Ecuador during the rainy season, I was happy to arrive in Guayaquil, on the south-west coast of Ecuador. It was a long but scenic bus journey from Quito as the road drops dramatically down from the mountains then follows mile after mile after mile of banana plantations.

Cerro Santa Ana, seen from La Perla

I remember very little about Guayaquil from when I was there in 1999. It was a dangerous city back then, but it’s reinvented itself and an impressive walkway or Malecón has been built along the banks of the river Guayas. Like all cities now seem to require, it even has its own Ferris wheel, La Perla. And it’s a lot cheaper than the London Eye. 

Cerro Santa Ana

There’s not a lot to do apart from wander the Malecón and enjoy the sun. The 90% humidity wasn’t so pleasant though. At the end of the Malecón is the Cerro Santa Ana, once a no-go area, but now gentrified, with winding streets and steps up to a lighthouse with great views over the city.

Puerto López

I didn’t want to be in the city over the Easter weekend when everything would be closed, so I decided to head for Puerto López, a beach resort just 3 or 4 hours ride away. The first thing I had to do at the bus station was find the end of the queue, as each counter for each bus company had an enormous queue snaking back and intermingling with others. A security guard vainly tried to explain to Ecuadorians how to queue, but with little success.

Isla de la Plata

After two hours standing in line in sweltering conditions, I finally had a ticket in hand and was on a bus heading to the coast. Luckily, it was all worthwhile, since Puerto López is a laid back beach town and even over a holiday it wasn’t too crowded. 

Blue-footed boobies

On my first full day there I took a boat trip to Isla de la Plata, often described as a poor man’s Galapagos. During a two hour guided hike into the interior I saw magnificent frigate birds and some blue-footed boobies, then went snorkelling with turtles. In English the island’s name means Silver Island and is allegedly named after the fact that Sir Francis Drake buried some treasure stolen from the Spanish. Surprising how often his name has cropped up on my travels since Colombia.

Playa de los Frailes

The next day I visited Playa de los Frailes in the Machalilla National Park, reputedly one of the best beaches in Ecuador. It didn’t disappoint. I opted to take the two hour trail which goes up to incredible viewpoints and past deserted stretches of beach.

The trail to Playa de los Frailes

I headed back to Guayaquil on Easter Monday which luckily is not a holiday here, but a regular working day, so it was a lot quieter. I was relaxed and chilled out, but the trip to Isla de la Plata had also made me excited about visiting the Galapagos, where I was headed next. My only concern was how expensive it was all going to be, as the islands have a reputation for being incredibly pricey. How I was going to survive on my budget?

Puerto López
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Quito – exploring some of the best colonial architecture on the continent and taking a trip to the Equator 

Street in Quito

The line of the Equator lies just over 20 kilometres north of the capital, Quito. There’s a whole tourist complex built around this imaginary line which attracts many visitors keen to have their photos taken straddling two hemispheres. Unfortunately, modern GPS calculations show that the line is off by a very small amount. But it would be far too much trouble to move the huge monument. So let’s go with the modern way of thinking – ignore the scientific facts and celebrate the kitsch.

The Equator, almost

The last time I arrived in Quito in 1999 was in the back of a truck with a volley of stones raining down on me and fellow passengers. I’d arrived in Riobamba to rumours of an imminent national transport strike. There was galloping inflation and the price of fuel was rising, but the government refused to allow an increase in bus and taxi fares, so a strike was indeed called and the country ground to a halt. 

The Equator monument

I was stuck in Riobamba for four days before finally deciding to risk a ride with some locals in an illegal van. We were effectively strike breakers, but I had a flight in a few days out of Quito which I couldn’t afford to lose, so I had to put my wallet before my principles. Hiding in the back of a van with the doors closed in darkness was quite scary, but we’d only gone about 20 miles when we were stopped at a roadblock by some angry agitators. We spent the whole day getting to the capital either on foot or cadging a lift with some freelance cab drivers.

Palm Sunday in the Plaza de San Francisco

Luckily, my short bus ride to Quito from Otavalo this trip was uneventful. The last time I wasn’t able to visit the Equator, so I was determined to see it as soon as possible. Inevitably after eighteen years wait, it was bound to be something of a disappointment. 

A foot in both hemispheres

Ecuador only became a separate country after independence from Spain and took its name from the imaginary line which divides our two hemispheres. A quite pricey visitors centre has been built around it and most of it is quite cheesy, but it’s something you have to see. In Ecuador it’s known as La Mitad del Mundo. 

Presidential celebrations in the Plaza Grande

The rest of my time in Quito I simply spent wandering the streets admiring the buildings and waiting for the rain to stop. There are three big squares, the Plaza Grande, the Plaza Santo Domingo and the most impressive, the Plaza San Francisco. Or rather, it would be more impressive if half of it wasn’t blocked off for metro building works. The church museum and cloisters are really fasinating though. The Palm Sunday celebrations lent the city a festive air and on Monday the outgoing President was in town, so there was some typical Latin American pomp and circumstance.

Palm Sunday in Plaza Santo Domingo

I wanted to spend more time in the highlands, but April is not the best time to be there. In fact, both Colombia and Ecuador have had up to five tines the seasonal average of rain. So, I decided to catch a bus down to the coastal lowlands and Guayaquil. Eighteen years ago when I was there it was one of the most dangerous cities in Ecuador. But apparently it’s undergone a huge transformation, so I was intrigued to visit it again.

La Ronda, street in Quito

Otavalo in Ecuador – markets, volcanoes, lakes and condors

Otavalo market

Otavalo is famous for its huge Saturday market when hundreds of locals arrive from their villages to sell their wares. It’s become so popular that many tourists also flock to this market town in northern Ecuador to witness the spectacle for themselves and try on a few brightly-coloured ponchos. 

Otavalo with Volcán Cotacachi making a brief appearance

After crossing the border from Colombia, I hopped into a shared minivan to take me to the border town of Tulcan and from there I caught a bus to Ibarra. It’s only 45 minutes away from Otavalo, but I was keen to spend a few days in a less touristy place first. The town sits close to Volcán Imbabura, but, unfortunately, April is still the rainy season and it was covered in clouds almost the whole time I was there. 

Parque Pedro Moncayo, Ibarra

Dodging the showers, I explored the streets and colonial buildings and churches. It’s very much a working town and immediately felt different to Colombia with many people in traditional sierra dress. The next morning it was sunny and I took advantage of this to visit the hot springs at Chachimboro. There are just two buses a day there at 7am and 12.30. The site was a bit over-commercialised, but during the week it was a quiet place to idle away a couple of hours.

Textile, Otavalo market

I arrived in Otavalo on Friday, ready for the market the next day. The town is not particularly attractive in itself and it’s really all about the market and the surrounding countryside. The main tourist stalls are focused on the aptly named Plaza de Ponchos. It’s the ideal place to buy colourful handicrafts and ethnic gear which might seem a good idea at the time, but the truth is you’ll probably never wear that poncho back home. 

Animal market, Otavalo

Far more interesting for me was the animal market on the other side of the Panamerican Highway in some very muddy fields. Men were coaxing squealing pigs along pathways, while women with babies tied in bundles on their backs were busy tethering cows to posts. More upsettingly, you can also find live chickens and birds packed tightly into crates. It’s all over by 10am so you need to get there early.

Animal market, Otavalo

On Sunday I visited the Parque Cóndor a few kilometres outside the town. It’s a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for rescued birds of prey. I’ve been to a few aviaries before, but it was an amazing experience to get so close to such huge birds as Andean condors and Harris Hawks. 

Andean condor

At 11.30 there was a flight exhibition in which the handlers brought out several birds and provided information about them, before allowing some of them to fly off against the stunning Andean landscape. It was the highlight of my stay in Otavalo.

Harris hawk

On Monday I caught a bus to the village of Cotacachi at the foot of the volcano with the same name. From there I hired a taxi to take me up to the national park where I hiked a spectacular four and a half hour trail around Laguna de Cuicocha. The path goes up and down, climbing quite high in places, but with great views. Sadly, Imbabura still remained hidden by clouds.

Laguna de Cuicocha

I spent my last night in a local homestay programme outside Otavalo wth Milton and Estela. The plan was to help the family on the farm, but they had more pressing issues. Milton’s brother was getting married at the weekend and they needed to buy some supplies, so I was invited on the shopping trip to buy huge sacks of rice, flour and corn. There are no caterers or wedding planners here. The women do it all themselves. I asked how many they would be cooking for. “About a thousand,” they replied coolly. 

Estela sifting through corn seeds

The next morning I accompanied Estela into the corn fields to collect the seed pods which would be dried in the sun over several months before being used to plant next season’s crop in October. I then spent an hour helping remove the seeds from the pods. It was a bit like shelling peas and it took me back years to when, as a kid, I used to help my mum in the kitchen. As we led the cows to pasture in the morning, the clouds lifted, the sun came out and I got my first brilliant view of Imbabura. It was the perfect end to my time in Otavalo.

Countryside around Otavalo