Cuenca and the scenically stunning but alarming road south to Peru via Zumba

High above the valley en route to Zumba

The bus slowed down as we approached another 180 degree bend high up in the mountains in southern Ecuador. I heard the gears crunch and glanced out the window. And then down. The wheels were centimetres away from the edge. There had been a lot of rain and, although it was now nice and sunny, several parts of the unpaved road had been washed away. I caught my breath as I saw the muddy track crumbling under the tyres and cascading to the valley below.

The road to Zumba

It was my last day in Ecuador and I was heading south on what is described as the less travelled route to Peru. There are three border crossings: the Panamerican along the coast, the road through Macará which is less hassle and this one via the remote town of Zumba. The lush green scenery more than compensated for the hair-raising sections. It was the first time I felt compelled to take out my camera on a bus this trip. The scenery is sure to get even more dramatic as I move further into the Peruvian high plains, the altiplano. 

Cuenca

Even though the heat and humidity in the Galápagos had sometimes left me drained, I told myself I’d miss the sun once I was back in the mountains. And, sure enough, as soon as I arrived in Cuenca on the bus from Guayaquil, the temperature dropped and the drizzle and clouds moved in. 

Casa del Sombrero

Cuenca is Ecuador’s third city and gets rave write-ups for its colonial architecture. I found it a little underwhelming, to be honest, although I really liked that it’s not just a tourist town, but a real working city. There are some distinctive churches and the usual attractive streets, but it was the curious hat museum which really caught my attention. Panama hats are made all over this area and the Museu Municipal Casa del Sombrero provides some history and insight into the process.

Ingapirca

I saw pretty much everything I wanted to on the first day, so on the second day I caught the bus for the long 4/5 hour round trip to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s only real Inca site. It’s certainly no Machu Picchu, but the setting is nice and it whetted my appetite for the bigger glories to come in Peru. Around the site you can see the beautiful flowers called angel’s trumpet which are in fact poisonous. They are also being used in scams and attacks. If inhaled or ingested, it can disable the victims and render them helpless and susceptible. Our guide told us of someone he knew who’d been robbed of $7000.

The deadly angel’s trumpet

Loja was my next stop. It’s another colonial town and probably missable in favour of nearby Vilcabamba. But I’d been there before and this time decided to stay in Loja. I ended up staying three nights, as I came down with the usual travellers’ sickness. It turned out well, however, because I did nothing and ate nothing, thus saving a bit. My Galápagos trip had severely damaged my funds, to the extent I needed to rob a bank. Or worse, get a job. But a few days’ rest did the trick instead.

En route to Zumba

I caught a 9am bus to Zumba which was supposed to take 5 or 5 1/2 hours depending on whom you ask. It took almost 7. But I wasn’t complaining, because the view out of the window was so exhilarating. We climbed up and down valleys along a twisting, vertiginous road. The highest point took us through the Podocarpus National Park, where visibility was reduced to almost nothing in thick rain clouds. But on the other side the sun came out to reveal small towns and farmlands thick with fruit trees, papayas, lychees, guanábana (soursop) and bananas.

Scenery en route to Zumba

I decided to break the journey and stay in Zumba for a night. When you’re constantly on the road, you don’t always realise how tired you can become, especially if, like me, you try to be doing something every day. But my enforced rest in Loja had also reinvigorated me mentally. When I boarded the bus to Zumba and the sun came out, I felt a new lease of life and excitement as Peru and a new country awaited.

The Galápagos – Part 3 – San Cristóbal – my last stop

Sea lion at La Loberia

In many cities and towns around the world public spaces are overrun with pigeons. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal it’s sea lions. Swimming in the shallow waters by the port, basking in the sun on benches and snorting and grunting as they heave themselves onto land. Just a few kilometres out of the town, you can also swim with them, which was a hugely privileged experience.

Sea lions in the harbour

San Cristóbal is east of Santa Cruz and another two hour boat ride away. The main town is a bit more developed than Puerto Villamil, but still quiet and relaxing and you can walk everywhere. It’s still hugely expensive, though, and there weren’t so many cheaper places to eat that I’d found elsewhere. There are several attractions close to the port itself, as well as boat trips further afield. Again, I had to make a choice of what to do according to my limited budget. I spent day 9 of my trip heading back to Santa Cruz and overnighting there before moving onto San Cristóbal on the afternoon ferry of day 10. 

View from Cerro Tijeretas

Day 11. A short walk out of town takes you to an Interpretation Centre which has some displays on the islands. Behind the centre I walked along the trails up to Cerro Tijeretas with wonderful views, then wandered down to the bay and watched sea lions swimming and pelicans fishing. The sea lions are incredibly tame and curious and one came right out of the water and onto the steps where I was sitting. In the late afternoon I walked in the opposite direction out of town to a dramatic beach, La Loberia, with huge breaking waves and a colony of sea lions. Cost = Free.

Giant tortoise at La Galapaguera

Day 12. I caught a taxi to take me up to the highlands in the interior. It was my first opportunity to see giant tortoises in the semi wild at La Galapaguera. On the way back I stopped at a lagoon, Laguna El Junco, which, due to its altitude was misty and refreshingly cool. There a short trail I took which goes all the way round. Cost = $40.

Snorkelling through these narrow gaps at Leon Dormido was not easy

Day 13. My big splurge here was a boat trip to Leon Dormido, a huge rocky outcrop an hour away. Snorkelling was not easy here, as we were in the deep ocean which meant large swells and cold water. I’d recommend hiring a wet suit. It was worth it, however, because we saw Galápagos sharks and more turtles. Blue-footed boobies nest high up in the rocks. After lunch on the boat we had some free time on a beautiful beach, Cerro Brujo. Cost = $100.

Playa Cerro Brujo

Day 14. My last day in the Galápagos I returned to Cerro Tijeretas and La Loberia this time with a mask to snorkel with the sea lions. One sea lion played for ages with me and two others and when I dived down it also dived and spun around, a lot more gracefully than I could manage. Cost = Free, but mask hire was $3.

Sea lion at La Loberia

I’d spent a lot of my time during the trip wondering if it was worth the outrageous expense, and on the whole I think the Galápagos are overpriced for what you get. There are many places around the world where you can snorkel with exotic marine life and spot other types of wildlife. But swimming with these sea lions on my last day made me realise how special these islands are. Are they worth the money? No. Are they worth visiting anyway? Yes, absolutely. 

Sunset at La Loberia

The Galápagos – Part 2 – Isabela, my favourite island

Marine iguanas, Isabela

You know you’ve arrived in yet another special place when the church in the main town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela has stained glass windows of pelicans and blue-footed boobies. And behind the altar there is a painting of Christ hovering over this Galápagos island, with sealions, tortoises and iguanas at his feet. It’s all far removed from the usual depictions of suffering. The only suffering you’re likely to experience here is in your wallet.

Isabela

After four nights on Santa Cruz, I caught a ferry to Isabela. Actually, ferry is not the right word. They’re basically speedboats and charge you a whopping $30 for an unpleasant 2 hour ride. They’re tightly packed with inadequate seating. You can choose between suffocating heat inside or being at the mercy of the sun and sea-spray outside. Either way seasickness is not uncommon. 

Flamingo, Isabela

Isabela lies to the west and, although it’s the largest island, is in fact one of the least developed. No planes arrive here from the mainland and no cruises start from here, so it’s a lot more chilled. Puerto Villamil has sandy streets and the main square is just a block from a beautiful stretch of beach. 

Church stained-glass window

I stayed in an Airbnb place with a kitchen, so I could try and save money by cooking, but the shops are severely lacking in food. The restaurants on the square serve set lunches and dinners for $7 and the dishes are a bit more creative than the usual fare, but portions are small. If you’re on a budget, you can forget any luxuries. One cafe was asking $6 for a brownie!

Baby tortoise

Day Five. After checking into my hotel and a quick lunch, I strolled along the boardwalk to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. Along the way there are several small lagoons with flamingos. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to these birds. Each of the main islands has its own tortoise centre and conservation of these amazing creatures is a huge project. You can see some cute baby tortoises which are raised here before slowly being released into the wild. It’s quite moving when you consider the age which giant tortoises can reach – over a hundred years. This means that the dedicated workers here won’t live to see their tortoises gain full maturity. It’s an impressive commitment to the future which is sadly lacking in politicians all over the world today. Cost = Free

Blue-footed booby

Day Six. There are two main snorkelling trips you can do from Puerto Villamil, Los Túneles and Las Tintoreras. The first costs $120, the second $40. I asked a travel agent what the difference was and appreciated her honesty. She told me the only things you’ll see extra at Los Túneles are sea horses. Well, to save $80, I was happy to skip the sea horses. And I don’t regret it, as this turned out to be my favourite trip. It was only a half day and the islands are right there in the bay, so the less time spent travelling means you have more time to spot wildlife which was abundant. I saw the Galápagos penguin, sealions and a blue-footed booby. An added bonus was when two mating turtles passed close to our boat. The trip also included a guided walk around an island. Cost = $40

Turtles at Las Tintoreras

Galápagos penguin

Day Seven. Another trip through an agency, but this time without a focus on wildlife. I signed up for a guided hike up the Sierra Negra Volcano. It’s about a five hour round trip, but not difficult as the ascent is not steep. At the top you can see the second biggest crater in the world at over 10 kilometres in diameter. The trail continues to another volcano, Volcán Chico, where there are inspiring views of Elizabeth Bay and across to the neighbouring island of Fernandina. Cost = $35

Sierra Negra crater

Day Eight. After two paid excursions it was time for me head off independently. I walked along the beach and then the trail to Muro de las Lágrimas, or Wall of Tears. It’s the remains of a prison built under horrendous conditions by the prisoners themselves and it’s really just a wall, but the journey there is great, if extremely hot, past lagoons and secluded beaches. At Playa del Amor I saw some of the biggest marine iguanas so far. Cost = Free. You can hire a bike for $15 a day. 

On the trail to Muro de las Lagrimas

I was quite sorry to leave Isabela, but I had a boat to catch the next day back to Santa Cruz and from there another boat to my last stop, San Cristóbal. 

Sunset at Puerto Villamil

The Galápagos Part 1 – Santa Cruz – Is it possible to visit on a budget?

Giant tortoises, Santa Cruz

You know you’ve arrived somewhere pretty special when the airport bus has to stop for a marine iguana in the road. In the UK a flock of sheep might block a country road. In India it’s usually a cow on the train tracks. But in the Galápagos it’ll be a giant lizard. Another surprise on arrival, and this time not a pleasant one, is the astronomical prices. 

Marine iguana

The Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador and lie west in the Pacific a few hours away by plane from Quito or Guayaquil. They are a magnet for travellers from all over the world, drawn primarily by the extraordinary wildlife. Many species exist only on this island and have adapted and evolved in fascinating ways. Charles Darwin came here in 1835 and his discoveries led him to develop his theories on the Origin of Species. The world’s last Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, lived here until his death a few years ago.

A pair of pelicans

Most people arrive as a part of a package tour and head straight out to multi-day boat tours. Booked in advance, these are eye-wateringly expensive. I’m also not keen on organised trips and, since I have time and flexibility, I decided to travel independently. My daily budget when travelling is around US$35. It would be more if the stupidities of Brexit hadn’t severely devalued sterling over the past year. Once on the islands, I quickly discovered that this barely covers basics like accommodation and food. Anything extra, like snacks, drinks and tours dramatically increase your spending.

Lizard

To get there I used the excellent app, Hopper, which monitors flights and costs. For months, flights to the Galápagos were around £330, then I got an alert showing they’d dropped to £250, so I quickly booked, just a few weeks before departure. At the airport in Guayaquil, I had to pay a $20 transit tax just to get on the plane to the Galápagos. On arrival at the airport in Baltra you have to pay another $100. So, I’d already overspent by four days before I’d even collected my luggage.

Pelican

I stayed on Santa Cruz for four nights. It’s the main island and there is a bewildering number of tour agencies, offering day trips and last-minute boat deals. The cheapest of these was $800 for four days. Day trips start around $100 for a basic six hour boat trip and can go up to $150 or higher. However,there are also many things you can do for free or at comparatively low cost.

Expensive day trip by boat

I heard one travel agent trying to cajole some young tourists into signing up for a multi-day boat tour by telling them their experience would all depend on how much wildlife they see. The more they see, the better the experience. I immediately reacted against this nonsense, and decided to go independently and maybe splash out on a few day trips. Here’s what I did in Santa Cruz.

Giant tortoise, Charles Darwin Research Centre

Day One. After I’d checked into my hotel in Puerto Ayora, the main town, I walked to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and got my first viewing of giant tortoises. I was surprised when an attendant asked me if I wanted to see Lonesome George, as they were just opening up the special room. Of course I wanted to, but didn’t he die in 2012? It turns out that Lonesome George has spent the past five years in the US being stuffed and preserved and only returned here just a few months ago. It was a slightly depressing experience, with a timed visit and selfie-stick wielding tourists jostling for position. Much more interesting was the opportunity to get close to real life tortoises. Cost = Free

Playa Tortuga

Day Two. I walked a trail to a beautiful beach, Playa Tortuga, where pelicans swoop down to fish in the ocean. Marine iguanas nest and relax in the shade. I even saw some baby sharks swimming in the shallows. On the way back I saw many of the famous Darwin’s Finches. It’s amazing how tame and unafraid so many of the birds and animals are here, and I sat for ten minutes as one finch hopped curiously around me. Cost = Free

Finch

Day Three. I caught a water taxi across the bay to visit Las Grietas, a fabulous canyon where you can snorkel and which also has great views over the bay. In the afternoon I walked on the small boardwalk around the Laguna de las Ninfas, past amazing mangroves. Cost = 80 cents each way for boat taxi. 

Pelican at Playa Tortuga

Day Four. This was my big excursion, a day trip to Isla Pinzon, and it turned out to be my least favourite day. We had three stops for snorkelling and we were promised a landing on a beach, but for some reason, that wasn’t possible. One of the snorkelling stops was great and we saw turtles and sharks, but at the others visibility was not good. Also, the guide was not very helpful and the fellow passengers were aloof and boring. I could only imagine what it would have been like trapped on a cruise with them for four days. Cost = $110

Snorkelling at Isla Pinzon
Food tip – if you’re looking to save money, ignore the exorbitant restaurants along the seafront where you’ll pay Manhattan or West End prices. Several local restaurants offer set lunches and dinners for around $5. They’re basic but filling. A couple of blocks back from the harbour Charles Binford street has some great and lively outdoor restaurants with more reasonably priced seafood dishes.

Next blog – Isabela Island

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

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