Renting a Car in Ecuador: What You Should Know

Are you one of the intrepid souls who wish to rent a car here in Ecuador? If so, then here’s some up-to-date information about car rentals, provided by a client of ours who returned his car yesterday. Note: this information is from October of 2016 so if you are reading this 2 years (or even 2 months!) from now, some of the facts may well have changed.

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So let’s get started. Many people who are planning their visit to Coastal Ecuador like the idea of renting a car during their visit so they can explore the country at their leisure. Makes sense, right?

First things first.

Driving a vehicle in Ecuador is, no kidding, an adventure in and of itself, and is not for the faint of heart, especially if you have only have driving experience in places where there is good signage and most people abide by traffic laws. Tom often warns newbies of the “virtual 3rd lane” that is common on double lane roads.

City traffic can be grueling and stressful

City traffic can be grueling and stressful

Here, you can expect to get lost at least once (even with GPS), be cut off and honked at regularly in the cities, get passed by Kamikaze drivers on blind, hairpin curves, dodge dogs wandering (or even sleeping) out in the roads, motorcycles with no headlights, and the list goes on. We’ve definitely heard our share of stories from clients who say they’ll be hiring a driver next time!

Also, note that if you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, unfortunately you’re out of luck. Virtually all cars here have manual transmissions.

 

If You’re Still Game, Then Where to Begin?

First, be aware that you are allowed to drive in Ecuador using your foreign driver’s license the first 30 days you are in the country. After that, technically you are required to apply for an Ecuadorian license (good fodder for a future blog). The Avis website says an International Driving Permit (IDP) is required in addition to a valid license from your country of residence. From our client’s experience, no one ever mentioned the IDP. And from our experience, having an International Driver’s Permit was never particularly helpful as the local police who stopped us at routine checkpoints on a couple of occasions were never impressed by the little paper booklet as it does not look “official” enough.

 

Where to Rent Your Vehicle From?

To save you time and unwanted headaches/stress, our usual recommendation is to fly into Quito and then take a 30 minute domestic flight into Manta. And then from Manta, rent the car to explore the coast. (Again, more specifics on a variety of topics related to planning your visit can be found in our “Know Before You Go” guide. Sign up HERE to get your free copy.)

We generally do NOT recommend renting a vehicle from Quito. Although the drive out of the Andes Mountains is gorgeous, it also pretty harrowing for most newcomers and can vary between 6 to 12 hours (depending on if or how often/ badly you get lost!!).

Andean rainforests are part of the beauty of driving out of the mountains to the coast.

Andean rainforests and waterfalls are part of the beautiful scenery of driving out of the mountains down to the coast.

Your other option is to fly into Guayaquil. You could rent a car from there but signage isn’t great and it’s common for people to get lost or become very stressed attempting to get out of the city. From Guayaquil you can take a bus to Manta (~$5, 4 hours), a shuttle (~$25, 3.5 hours), or hire a private driver (~$100, 3.5 hours). There are NO flights between Guayaquil and Manta.

 

How to Find a Secure and Reliable Car Rental?

How to go about finding and reserving a rental? The EASIEST and MOST SECURE way is to just type in Manta, Ecuador or Manta’s airport code (MEC) into an online site like Kayak.com or Orbitz.com. Currently, the only option that comes up for any online site that I have tried thus far is Avis. Budget used to come up for Manta but their office has closed.

Screenshot of a search using Expedia.com

Screenshot of a search using Expedia.com

Daily rates though an established, international car rental agency may be higher than a local company but there are countless tales of poorly operating vehicles, getting charged up the nose for *previously* incurred damages, poor customer service, and unexplained charges that show up a month or so after the fact. You’ll have a far better chance for a positive experience and have more power to rebuke any unwarranted charges with an established and reputable company.

 

Summary of important details from our client’s recent AVIS rental car experience (He’s rented out of Manta twice now over the last 3 months):

  • Avis’ cars are now available AT the Manta airport. In the past, you had to hire a taxi to take you into Manta proper to pick up your rental. So this is a very nice improvement.
  • Note: The Avis rental office is apparently ONLY open around flight schedules (online the hours are listed as 6:30am to 8:30pm but they close in between flight times).
  • The economy car is very small but functional for most people unless they are very large or have an excess of luggage. My husband is about 6’2″ and he fit ok.
Example of an Economy vehicle

Our client’s Economy vehicle that he rented from Avis in Manta

  • Low clearance on the economy vehicles obviously means to WATCH OUT and TAKE IT EASY over those speed bumps and potholes!
  • The economy car comes to about $18 per day with taxes and fees. There is also generally a mileage allowance of 100 km (60 miles) for each day you rent. If you go over, you will be charged another $0.20 per km (which adds up!). In some cases, you might be able to find a deal with unlimited mileage but it is not common.
  • A $5,000 authorization is held on your credit card to cover costs of any damages, driving violations, etc. This authorization is kept on the card for 1 month following the end of your rental in case you are caught speeding by speed-detecting cameras.
Speed limits in Ecuador

Speed limits in Ecuador. “Urbana” = urban areas, “Perimetral”=major roads on outer parts of cities, “Rectas en Carretera” Highway, straight sections, “Curvas en Carretera” = Highway, around curves.

  •  If you opt into paying for insurance (a wise idea) then you can purchase it for $11/day at the time of making your reservation; however, this is NOT REFUNDABLE if paid for in advance. Alternatively, you can purchase your insurance at the time of pick up for $35/day. A BIG difference so if you are confident about your dates it is worth doing.
  • Be aware that although online you may be able to select add-ons such as car seats and GPS, these options are actually not available. For our client, such was the case for the GPS he was assured he would have (after speaking with an agent in the Quito office). Once in Manta, he was told they hadn’t had vehicles equipped with GPS for at least a year.
Interior view of Scott's rental car

Interior view of rental car

  • Bring your own smartphone with GPS. Check with your carrier for roaming fees and/or download the navigation areas you will be needing in advance to be able to navigate offline:

Don’t forget to pick up your FREE copy of our “Know Before You Go” trip planning guide!

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Good luck out there! We’ll look forward to seeing you here on the beach soon!

*Update (Oct 31, 2016): Here are some more great car rental tips from another friend and client who has rented on several occasions. Here’s what he had to add:

  • We always use a different city drop-off.  We either pick up in Manta and drop off in Guayaquil, or vice versa.  It depends on the plans for travelling the coast.  AVIS charges $60 for the alternate city drop-off.
  • For collision damage waiver (DDW) insurance, I added it to my credit card.  Any reservation I make, and pay for with that card, has CDW coverage.  It is a lot less expensive.  The only drawback, I am told, is that you will have to pay for damages up front, and be reimbursed by the credit card insurance.
  • Photo radar is rampant in Ecuador!  The government has a website that you can check to see if you got any tickets. To do so, go to www.ant.gob.ec and then click on Consulta de Citaciones (menu on far left), then drop the top box down for Placa (“license plate”) and enter your plate number on the lower box. You also have the option to select Pasaporte (your passport number).

Ecuador’s Halftime Super Bowl Ad

Ecuador saw a 14% increase in international tourism between the years 2013 and 2014 and are hedging their bets that an expensive ad during the Super Bowl on February 1 will have big payoffs for even greater numbers of visitors in 2015.

Ecuador is the first foreign country to buy an advertising spot during the Super Bowl to promote tourism. According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, the 30 second Super Bowl ad that boasts, “All You Need is Ecuador,” cost $3.8 million (earlier news stories reporting lower amounts did not include taxes).

Ecuador's Super Bowl commercial boasts that "All You Need is Ecuador"

Ecuador’s ambitious Super Bowl halftime commercial boasts that “All You Need is Ecuador”

 

The Super Bowl advertisement will be featured during half time and will be aired in 13 major markets, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Miami. There will be an additional 8 commercials that will run during NBC’s “Today Show” leading up to the Super Bowl.

The focus of this bold campaign is to highlight Ecuador’s four unique tourist destinations: Galapagos, Coast, Andes and Amazon. Truly, this small country has a lot to be proud of!

The "All You Need is Ecuador" campaign highlights

The “All You Need is Ecuador” commercial is to be aired during the Super Bowl and highlights Ecuador’s four distinct regions

 

Inspired by The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” tune, the first phase of the “All You Need is Ecuador” campaign was launched in April 2014 and was featured in 19 major cities throughout the world including NYC, Paris, Madrid, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam to name a few. The $19 million campaign lasted 10 days and consisted of displaying one giant letter in a major plaza of each participating city. Together the letters formed the words “All You Need is Ecuador.”  Each letter was covered with iconic images that show off Ecuador’s tremendous beauty and diversity, including giant tortoises, rare birds and orchids, colonial buildings and cathedrals, and spectacular natural landscapes.

Unique campaign strategy

The Ministry of Tourism’s unique campaign of placing giant letters from their slogan in key cities around the world.

 

In conjunction with the theme of “All You Need is Ecuador,” the government of Ecuador has adopted the slogan of Ecuador: Ama la Vida which can now be seen on buses, sides of government buildings, and even Ecuadorian product packaging. This upbeat reference to savoring life is reminiscent to me of Costa Rica’s famous “Pura Vida!

Ecuador's new slogan

Ecuador’s new upbeat slogan

 

While the first phase of the “All You Need” campaign focused on highlighting the richness and diversity that Ecuador has to offer, the airing of Ecuador’s Super Bowl commercial presents the second phase which aims to emphasize how all of these incredible experiences are concentrated into one tiny country. “One Country. Like Nowhere Else, All in One Place, So Close” is the motto.

Only the size of the state of Nevada, Ecuador offers much to explore.

Merely the size of the U.S. state of Nevada, Ecuador is a rich play land ready for exploration. A 30-minute domestic flight west from the snow capped Andean volcanoes transports you to the beautiful, warm Pacific coast. Thirty minutes to the east and you’ve arrived to one of the most biodiverse rainforests on the globe. Where else in the world is that possible?

 

Ecuador’s government increasingly recognizes the economic potential of tourism saying that it is the future of Ecuador. Last year, approximately $600 million dollars was generated by the tourist sector. The goal of Ecuador’s Super Bowl ad is to make the estimated 120 million spectators fall in love with this little known place and come visit.  Of the 1.5+ million tourists to Ecuador in 2014, twenty-one percent visited from the U.S. Officials say that  a 1% increase in U.S. visitors to Ecuador in 2015 will cover the money invested on the Super Bowl ad.

To wrap up this post, below is a playlist of eight promotional videos from the Ministry of Tourism that are definitely worth the watch.

 

It is no doubt an exciting time to be here in Ecuador watching a myriad of transformations taking place.  When we bought a house on the coast in 2006 we never could have imagined how quickly Ecuador would become a global destination for both tourists and expats alike.

 

**UPDATE (Feb 5): Here is the final advertisement that was run at halftime.

 

Notable Hand Gestures in Ecuador

Cultural differences manifest in many forms; the most obvious ones are language, dress, and food.  Hand gestures can be a subtle facet of cultural identity, yet should not be overlooked as insignificant.  Here are a few hand signals you might come across or ones you had best avoid while visiting or living in Ecuador.

 

Come Here

In the US and many parts of the world, we typically signal for someone to come over to talk to us in one of two ways. The first is to wag/flap your hand, palm up, in a direction towards you. The second is to extend your index finger and curl it towards yourself. The former looks a bit silly to an Ecuadorian and the latter does indeed signify “c’mere” but in a sexual advancement kind of way.

A seductive invite to come closer

A seductive invite to come closer

 

Speaking of which, NEVER use the above single finger gesture with your hand palm down unless you intend to send a very sexually explicit message to the recipient.

This gesture is very offensive

A very offensive gesture to a woman

 

The proper way to ask someone to come towards you is to extend out your hand, palm down and wag your fingers towards your palm. This same gesture is also used for hailing a taxi or bus.

Proper form of signalling someone over

Proper form of signalling someone over to you

 

Sorry-No Can Do!

Typical Scenario 1: You are at the fish market and you ask a man for shrimp. The man looks up at you and simply shakes his open hand but says nothing. You think, huh, perhaps he didn’t understand me and you ask again (maybe a bit a louder in typical expat fashion).  Looking slightly exasperated now, the man shakes his hand a bit more more emphatically and as you continue to stand there perplexed, he adds, “No hay” (pronounced “no EYE”).

Typical Scenario 2: You have been waiting alongside the hot, dusty road for a taxi and now, finally see one approaching. As you hail the taxi with great hope, the driver casually sticks his hand out of the half open window and shakes it at you as he drives past. What!? How rude!, you think to yourself.

The open hand, palm down, shaken from up to down is a widely used gesture that is often overlooked or misunderstood by Ecuador newbies.  As in the shrimp case above, the gesture was used to indicate that there were no shrimp available (“no hay”). The same gesture can also mean “no hay como,” which means that something’s not possible [at the moment]. In the case of the taxi driver, the gesture indicated that the taxi was not available for hire.

no hay

An open palm shaken from up to down indicates that something (or someone) is not there or available

 

How Tall is Your Pony?

If you are ever asked how tall someone is,  you would indicate their height by holding out the side of your hand, pinkie side facing down.  If you indicated your spouse’s head height using your palm facing down, you might illicit laughter as this gesture is used exclusively for measuring the height of animals, typically livestock.

use hand to measure the height

Proper way to indicate the height of a person, with the top of their head being the bottom edge of your hand

measure

Incorrect way to indicate height for a person; it is used strictly for animals

 

Hook ‘Em Horns

A head’s up to all the Texas Longhorn fans out there who are thinking of coming to Ecuador. Flashing the hand sign of your beloved team indicates to the recipient that their spouse is cheating on them; i.e. they are “cachudo” (wife cheating on him) or “cachuda” (husband cheating on her). A side note here that the hand-horns sign IS widely used in rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a cross-over from North American/European culture.

hook em horns

Not the gesture of a Texas sports fan in Ecuador!

 

A-[Not]-Okay

The A-OK sign is a vulgar sexual reference that is best to avoid. A better option to indicate your satisfaction or well-being is to offer a “thumbs up” sign instead. While in some other parts of the world, this too is a vulgar gesture, “thumbs up” here is commonly used.

All is not well with this signal

All is not well with this hand signal which is generally regarded as an extremely offensive, sexual gesture

 

Navigating the Wrist Shake

So this last one is not so much a gesture but instead is here for etiquette purposes. Typical scenario: You are introduced to someone who has been hard at work (landscaping, chopping fish, painting, etc.). You go to shake their hand yet instead of offering out their hand in return, they ball up their fist and offer you their wrist. Don’t be shy–just briefly shake their wrist. You have been offered their wrist not as an insult of any kind but simply because they are concerned that their hands are too dirty from work to offer to you.

hands

Shaking someone’s wrist because they don’t want to insult you by extending a dirty hand

 

Hopefully the hand gestures provided here will help, if ever so slightly, with the process of familiarizing yourself with some cultural nuances. The process takes a long time no matter what but fortunately, people here tend to have great compassion and appreciation for those who genuinely attempt to immerse themselves into Ecuadorian culture.

 

 

Ecuador’s Advances its Capacity for Dealing with Emergencies

Over the last couple of years, Ecuador has significantly advanced security measures to prevent and to better respond to crimes and other emergency situations.

As of October 2013, Ecuador has operated a nationwide 911 emergency call and response system, referred to as SIS-ECU 911.

An advanced, nationwide 911 emergency response system has been in operation since October 2013.

 

As in the US and elsewhere, all 911 calls are free. There are eight call centers throughout Ecuador, representing different regions of the country, with the closest to us in the nearby city of Portoviejo (40 minutes from San Clemente).

The ECU 911 service integrates a host of institutions including the national police, the armed forces, local fire departments, the National Transit System, Ministry of Health, Ecuador’s institute for social security, the Secretary of Risk Management, and the Red Cross as well as other local organizations.

The modern ECU 911 call center in Portoviejo

 

An integral component of the ECU 911 system is the “Transporte Seguro” (“Safe Transit”) program. This program was created in coordination with the National Transit System to reduce the number of road-related emergencies through monitoring and control of commercial transportation services. Part of this program was to install “Kits de Seguridad” (Security Kits) in all public buses and registered taxis in major cities across Ecuador.

Each of these security kits contains two video recording and infrared surveillance cameras and a panic button equipped with a GPS tracking device that immediately notifies 911 responders with the exact location of the vehicle. The system has a battery pack as a back up source of power. Buses are also equipped with sensors to remotely open and close the doors.

So far,  over 17,000 buses and 38,000 taxis have had security kits installed throughout Ecuador.

Schematic of the “Transporte Segura” program designed in part to reduce incidence of crime in public transportation.

 

Another innovative component of the ECU 911 system is a free smartphone app to quickly report emergencies utilizing a smartphone’s geo-referencing capabilities.  The app is called ECU 911 and is available for iPhones, Androids and Blackberries.

I discovered this app when doing research for this post and just installed it on Tom’s and my phone.  It can be programmed in English or Spanish. You do not have to be an Ecuadorian resident or citizen to use it so I would highly recommend visitors to set it up in advance of their trip.  To set it up, I had to input my name, passport or Ecuador cedula number, cell number, emergency contact name and number, select my blood type from a pull-down menu, and list any physical disabilities or allergies.  This app is an excellent option for residents and visitors who are not fluent in Spanish.

View of the new smartphone app to report categorized emergencies to ECU 911. The app is free, easy to use, and immediately sends your exact location to the appropriate emergency responders.

 

And another interesting security advancement I recently learned about was the programming of a panic button on any kind of cell phone. To do this, you take your phone into the nearest police station where they register your phone and your specific home address (well, as specific as possible, anyways). In the event of an emergency at or near where you live, you press a single digit on your phone and it immediately notifies the local police. The cost is a mere $0.05. A recent newspaper article reported an average response time of 3 minutes in Quito! So, in a small town like San Clemente, we should expect a rapid response time as well.

Police station located in San Jacinto with jurisdiction over the towns of San Jacinto and San Clemete.

 

Like in so many other sectors of Ecuador,  technological advances are being made rapidly. As Tom was saying today, some of these changes are taking place so quickly we don’t even find out about them until a few months after the fact! It truly has been fascinating to watch the development that’s taken place inEcuador since we first came in 2006 and we look forward to all that is surely still to come.

Boat Ride Tour at the Boca

We work largely in the Portoviejo River Valley which extends along the Ecuador’s central coast from Crucita to San Clemente. The Rio Portoviejo bisects the valley and separates the far northern end of Crucita from San Jacinto at the “Boca,” or the “mouth” of the river as it drains to the ocean.

Satellite image of the Portoviejo River Valley

 

Although it is only about six miles as the crow flies between Crucita and San Jacinto, it currently takes about 25 minutes in a vehicle because there is no direct, coastal route. Instead travel between the towns is along bumpy, meandering inland farm roads. There are plans in place to build a bridge at the Boca and to improve the beachfront roads of San Jacinto and Crucita starting in the coming year which will reduce the drive time to less than 10 minutes.

The other week we had friends/clients in town for whom Tom is building a house at the Boca. They were interested in hiring a boat to take us upriver to explore the area a bit more. We traveled roughly 4.5 miles upriver and fully enjoyed the peaceful scenery.

Beginning at the Boca, the river is lined with mangroves that are teeming with pelicans and frigate birds. We also saw lots of different wading birds including several kinds of herons and ibises. A few years back, Tom and I even remember seeing a flock of flamingos shrimping at the Boca as well!

Kai standing at the mouth of the river (the “Boca”)

 

View of the mangroves, home to hundreds to birds, including pelicans, frigate birds and herons.

 

 

Perfect setting for peaceful kayaking and bird-watching.

 

As we traveled further up the river, there were fewer birds but LOTS of giant iguanas hanging out in the trees along the banks. Some of these iguanas were at least 3-4 feet in length (sorry the zoom on our camera didn’t adequately capture the impressive iguana scene)!

Tom and Kai looking for giant iguanas.

 

Kai enjoying the river ride in the fishing boat.

 

The mangroves were soon replaced with simple houses as well as farmlands growing corn, onions, peppers, bananas, rice, mangoes, and papayas using pumps to capture river water for irrigation.

Mangroves turn to small homes fringing the river bank, most with plots of farmland.

 

A few sketchy looking bridges along the way (including one that had long since collapsed).

 

Lots of coconuts, mangoes, bananas/plantains, and papayas are grown along the river banks.

 

 

Many homes along the river have their own simple boats for fishing and river transportation

 

Kai actually smiled at the camera for this one.

 

Back to the San Jacinto side of the Boca at the construction site where Tom is currently building a house.

 

Here is a summary of our track along the river showing the georeferenced locations of where some of the above photos were taken.

 

We enjoyed our morning on the river and left with a better sense for some untapped tourist activities in this area, including kayak rentals and birdwatching tours. There are still many niches like these  to be filled in Coastal Ecuador.

 

Photo Tour: San Clemente to Bahia

This past Mother’s Day, Tom, Kai and I decided to take a little leisure ride along the undeveloped stretch of beach that connects San Clemente and Bahia. Tom had done the trip on his motorcycle a couple of years ago, but I’d never gone past Punto Charapoto and was interested in seeing this section of coastline.

View of Punto Charapoto (also called “Punto Bikini”) from San Clemente.

 

The trip inland between San Clemente and Bahia via the present highway cuts inland along meandering, hilly roads and takes about 25 minutes. The trip along the coast according to our odometer was 17.9 km (~10.8 miles) and is only navigable at low tide.

Map showing relative locations of San Clemente and Bahia. The beach drive between San Clemente and Bahia is about 18 kilometers (10.8 miles)

 

Fishermen often travel this stretch of coast at low tide as a short cut between San Clemente and Bahia.

Approaching Punto Charapoto from San Clemente

 

On the other side of Punto Charapoto

 

Tide pools are so much fun to explore and have many residents, including oysters and lobsters.

Fresh spiny lobster for sale! Lobsters are caught in the tide pools and typically sold for $4-7/lb.

 

Beautiful colors: Green algae covering rocks, gold iron pigments in exposed layers of rock along the cliffs, bright blue of the sky

 

Untouched beach for miles

 

Good potential for paragliding using updrafts off the cliffs

 

One of the few lightly developed sections of this stretch of coast is Chirije, an ecolodge with an impressive collection of pre-Incan artifacts collected locally.

 

A mototaxi awaits as oysters are collected from the tide pools

 

Beautiful Ecuador

 

 

Several small cave formations can be seen along the drive

 

Nothing here on the beach except for hordes of panicked crabs frantically trying to escape the oncoming wheels of our truck

 

More beautiful formations

 

Lone sea stack among the tide pools

 

 

One of the southern entrances down to the beach from Bahia

 

More cool caves

 

End of the drive looking back to the south towards San Clemente

 

That concludes our photo tour. The Correa government is considering constructing a coastal highway along this stretch of beach to significantly shorten the distance to Bahia. Plans for the specific route have yet to be released.

Travelogue: Three weeks in the Sierra

Below is a summary of our recent travel experiences in the Ecuadorian Sierra. We spent nearly three weeks traveling in Ecuador’s mountain region with both family and friends in December and January. It started off as a 10 day event in early January with some friends visiting from the US. But then Tom’s brother came in for a visit in December so we decided to do a family trip to Cuenca for Christmas followed by some other sightseeing to show him more of Ecuador.

All of this merged into a 3-week hiatus for us, which to be honest, was a too long for us to be away, especially with a 2 year-old in tow and me in the throes of morning sickness (we discovered I was pregnant with baby #2 on Christmas while in Cuenca). Here’s what we did and where we stayed:

Cuenca

We started by driving from Crucita to Cuenca which we broke into 2 days for our son Kai’s sanity as well as our own. The drive to Guayaquil was roughly four hours after multiple stops/bathroom breaks. The next day was another 5 or so hours with a spectacular drive through Cajas National Park.  Tom’s parents met us in Cuenca and instead of driving, they opted to take the Manta Express to Guayaquil and then from there flew to Cuenca, enjoying their 50% discount on national flights, one of the perks of being a 65+ Ecuadorian resident. In Cuenca, we had enjoyable stay at Hostal Macondo in Old Town. We spent several days there, including over Christmas. The countless Christmas parades which passed through downtown Cuenca made it a very colorful and entertaining place to be.

Cuenca is known for its colorful Christmas parades, often lasting 8 hours or more.

 

We did the typical Cuenca tourist circuit, starting with a city tour from a double decker bus as a means of getting oriented. We also visited a number of colonial churches, the Pumapungo ruins and gardens, spent lots of time walking the downtown area and along the Rio Tomebamba, enjoyed the plethora of dining options, and spent a luxurious evening at the Piedra de Agua hot springs and spa (ok, Tom and I stayed home with a cranky toddler who refused to go to sleep while the others enjoyed the spa!). We also did a day trip to Chordeleg, known for its silver jewelry. We spent another day in Cajas National Park, a place we’d definitely like to explore more in the future.

Beautiful, rugged, [and cold!] Cajas National Park

Brrrr…Kai has never worn so much clothing! At Tres Cruces pass in Cajas, the westernmost point of the continental divide of South America.

 

Cuenca certainly lived up to its reputation for being an extremely pretty, clean and well-kept city, far exceeding all other large (and small) cities we’ve encountered thus far in Ecuador.

The Rio Tomebamba, one of Cuenca’s four rivers.

 

We were particularly fascinated by the posses of highly efficient street cleaners power washing the streets immediately following each parade. Very impressive, especially coming from a small fishing village!  We thoroughly enjoyed Cuenca but the cold, rainy nights and the traffic congestion along the narrow, colonial streets definitely made us appreciative of quiet, warm evenings swinging in hammocks and drinking in the fresh ocean breeze. What can  I say? I enjoy visiting the mountains but love living on the beach!

 

Next stop: Baños

Tom’s parents decided to keep heading south towards Loja while Tom, his brother Cruce and I made our way north to stay in Baños. Tom and I have been to Baños many times and thought Cruce would enjoy spending a couple of nights there before returning to Quito and then back to the US. We stayed at the popular Hostal Chimenea, a very nice place, especially considering the price: only $8.50 per person for a room with private bath!  From the  terrace where inexpensive breakfast options are served, there are 360 degree views of the town and waterfall.

Hostal Chimenea is definitely a great bargain in Banos.

View of the waterfall from the hotel terrace.

 

Baños has LOTS to do packed into a small area and we fit in as much as we could including visiting hot springs, getting [another] massage, crossing beautiful gorges via “tarabitas” (cable cars) and ziplines, visiting the St. Martin zoo, hiking up to miradores to get a bird’s eye view of the town, renting one of the silly go carts that plague the streets of Baños and which we discovered during a 3-point turn did not have reverse, visited one of the children’s parks which Kai loved to death, gorged ourselves on the plethora of international dining options which we sorely miss at times in our small beach town, and drank lots of yummy sugar cane juice.

View from our cable car or “tarabita” of a waterfall.

One of many sugar cane stands in Baños selling freshly pressed cane juice and lots of sugary treats.

 

And of course, we drove our truck up the emergency evacuation road one evening in the hopes of seeing Volcano Tuguarahua doing what it does best. Unfortunately, we had thick cloud cover and didn’t see much but a plume of smoke during one fleeting moment.

Thrill-seekers pay to see the infamous volcano spewing lava at night.

 

Quito

While in Quito we often stay at Posada del Maple Bed and Breakfast which by the way if you mention you learned about them from our website you’ll [*supposedly*] receive a 10% discount on your stay. In Quito we picked up our friends visiting from Duluth, Minnesota.  John is Tom’s mountaineering buddy and this year his wife, Becky and 1.5 year old daughter also made the trip. We spent our first day with them going up the teleferico (gondola) and then we drove to one of my favorite places to splurge in Ecuador: Papallacta.

Riding the gondola (“teleferico”) up to 4050 m (13,290 ft) for spectacular views of the city and surrounding volcanoes.

 

Papallacta

Papallacta is a small, high altitude village about 2 1/2 hours southeast from Quito and less than 40 miles from the new Quito airport. It is located at an elevation of 3300 meters (nearly 11,000 ft) and is situated along the watershed boundary that separates the Ecuadorian Sierra (or mountainous region) from the Oriente (the eastern, rainforest region). The town has become well-known because of its fabulous hot spring environment. Imagine soaking in a steaming mineral bath surrounded by towering mountains cloaked in cloud forests teeming with orchids and hummingbirds. Um, yeah.

Hot spring heaven at Termas de Papallacta.

Tom and Kai enjoy a pleasant afternoon hike through cloud forest in Papallacta.

 

There are multiple hotels in town boasting hot spring pools but honestly, if possible, it is worth the $150 splurge to stay at Termas de Papallacta which has lovely guest cabins tucked away in gardens that surround semi-private hot spring baths. The resort has a nice (although overpriced) restaurant and full spa. A one-hour, full body massage is $50.  The resort also has very nice public hot springs with lots of pools of varying temperatures. This is a nice option for folks who want the atmosphere without the price (only $7.50 pp for an all-day admission). If possible, come mid-week when you are likely to nearly have the place to yourself.

 

Cayambe

From Papallacta we traveled to Cayambe where we stayed at Hacienda Guachala, the oldest hacienda in Ecuador, founded in 1530.

Guachala is the country’s oldest hacienda.

 

While we appreciated the rich colonial history of the hacienda, we honestly were not impressed by the accommodations (~$80/night) which were dark, very musty and reeked of diesel that is used to polish the wood floors )which also stain your socks black). This site was a stopping point for us as it served as the base camp to prep for Tom and John’s climb of Volcan Cayambe (elevation 5790 m or 19,000 ft).

Cayambe is the third highest mountain in Ecuador.

 

Mindo

While the guys were schlepping up nearly 7000 ft of vertical gain in ice and snow during a horrible windstorm, Becky, the kids and I visited tranquil Mindo. Mindo is a small town of ~3000 residents located in the Andean foothills, about 2 1/2 hours west of Quito. We stayed at Dragonfly Inn which was clean, comfortable and an excellent value ($27 single, $46 double). Kai loved watching the dozens of hummingbirds that swarmed the feeders all day long.

Mindo is a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 450 species, many of which are rare and/or endangered.

 

We also visited the El Quetzal chocolate factory where we participated in a “bean-to-bar” tour to learn about the artisanal process of chocolate-making ($5 pp). These daily tours (usually at 4pm) of course conclude with a sampling of a variety of chocolates, including ginger and spicy chili pepper. Yum. They also serve several homemade microbrews, including a chocolate stout.

Kai sampling chocolate at the El Quetzal Chocolate Factory.

 

Following our chocolate tour, we checked out Mindo’s famous “frog concert” which takes places nightly at the Mindo Lago Lodge at 6:30pm ($4.50 pp). The “show” is a guided night walk around a restored wetland ecosystem that is brimming with different frog species, as well as other interesting flora and fauna. Kai loved trekking through the forest in the dark, lighting up frogs, crickets, and spiders (and unappreciative tourists) with his flashlight beam. Definitely bring your own flashlight  as several people in our tour grumbled about not being able to see where they were walking.

The following day we went to the Butterfly Garden where we watched butterflies hatching from their cocoons, fed butterflies from our fingertips. and enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of the garden where hundreds of butterflies flit from orchid to orchid.

Mindo’s butterfly garden is definitely a must for visiting Mindo.

 

Quisato (the “Real” Mitad del Mundo)

The guys came down from the mountain and somehow had the energy to offer to pick us up in Mindo. Our next stop was to be Otavalo but we made a brief stop at Quisato, a monument with an impressive sundial located exactly on the equator  in Cayambe. This site should not be confused with the much more celebrated (yet less accurate) “Mitad del Mundo” national landmark outside of Quito.

Quisato is a more accurate “Mitad del Mundo” than that of the more popular site outside of Quito.

 

Otavalo and Volcan Antisana

We arrived to Otavalo on a Thursday afternoon so that Tom and John could prep for another mountain; this time their target was Volcan Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest mountain at 5700 m (18, 700 ft). They left Friday afternoon to set up camp to start their arduous climb at midnight to take advantage of the snow staying hard before they descended the following morning to camp.

Tom and John on the summit of Volcan Antisana, the fourth highest mountain in Ecuador.

View of Volcan Cotopaxi from the summit of Antisana.

Resting after a challenging 8 hour ascent and descent

 

Again, while the guys were hard at work, Becky, the kids and I were enjoying the peaceful environment of our mountainside hostal, La Luna. This affordable hostal ($21 pp) is on the outskirts of Otavalo, away from the noise and crowds and with beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside, including Volcanoes Imbabura and Cotacachi.  La Luna has a wonderful family-oriented atmosphere with a good (albeit simple) restaurant, an organic garden (and thus tasty, fresh salads), hammocks, board games, movies,  and large, very charismatic dogs.

View of the main guest house of La Luna, a wonderful place to stay when visiting the market in Otavalo.

View of Volcan Cotacachi from our hotel in Otavalo.

 

On Saturday morning, Becky and I went to Otavalo’s open air market, one of the largest in South America. Here you’ll find an inordinate and mind-numbing collection of trinkets, textiles, paintings, ceramics, woodwork, etc. etc. from all over the country. Saturdays are the busiest days, followed by Wednesdays but the market itself is open daily. Try to arrive early (before 9am) before all the tourist buses arrive and the prices go up. As in all Latin American markets, the vendors expect you to bargain and name their initial prices accordingly.

The Otavalo market is an almost dizzying experience that saturates all five senses.

Many Otavaleños have maintained much of their indigenous culture, including their native dress.

Kai and I peruse the colorful handicrafts in Otavalo.

 

The following day we visited Lagunas de Mojanda, three beautiful alpine lakes surrounded by volcanoes. Here we hung out and tried our luck with fishing from a hand reel.

Prepping the fishing line using freshly caught grubs.

No luck with the fishing but we had a nice time nonetheless.

 

Well, that concludes our travelogue. We had a great time sharing this beautiful country with friends and family but were nevertheless very glad to get home to peel off the layers of winter wear and to jump into the warm ocean!

Even though Ecuador is a small country (smaller than the state of Nevada!) it nevertheless seems so immense because of the richness and diversity of wonderful places to visit.