This time our route through Ecuador had it all: jungle, Andean peaks, city life, Pacific Coast and finally the Galapagos. As mentioned in our previous post, we left uninspiring Coca behind to find the Ecuadorian jungle. After a day’s long drive through the rainforest, we finally reached Río Napo’s tiny port of Puerto Misahualli. This small settlement is positioned between two major rivers and it’s literally here that the road comes to its end. The village itself is nothing special as the once important transit point for travelers arriving by river from Coca has now sunk into obscurity. One of the few things that this town has to offer is a lovely sandy river beach and a group of monkeys that live in the high trees in the square and can grab anything left unattended (from sunglasses to anything else they can get their hands on). That is the only wildlife we came across. However, the region is used by many tour operators as a base for exploring Río Napo and its jungle. On the positive side, most of these tours use the village only as a base and venture with their groups to visit the many animal rehabilitating projects that are nowadays active in the area. Next up and after the “hundred waterfall route” through Tena and Puyo, we arrived in Baños. The city’s setting is amazing and just from the town’s centre you can see waterfalls. Other activities on the city’s doorstep include hiking through lush forests and impossibly steep gorges, resting in steaming thermal springs or just marveling the occasional eruption of nearby Volcán Tungurahua. No, not this time for us!!! We did not even get to see its peak as it was covered with clouds. As expected, the town is somewhat overwhelmed with tour operators offering all types of extreme sports and cut-price hole on the wall spas. Here is the central highlands’ premiere destination for mountain biking, hiking, rafting and partying and almost everybody we came across seemed to leave this place with a big smile on their face.
After leaving Baños, we backtracked to Quito in order to give ourselves time to acclimatise before heading to the country’s highest peak. We had one extra reason to come here, to meet up with Joe & Josée from JoeandJoséesjourney.com, friends-overlanders that we had previously met in Caño Cristales, Colombia. We ended up gathering together four vehicles and a total of eight people. A good reason for celebrating this mini gathering came the next day as two of them happened to have their birthday. That day we headed to the ‘gringolandia’ of the Mariscal, a compact area of guesthouses, ethnic eateries and teeming nightlife, from bars to fancy dancing clubs. But in the overlanders’ world there is nothing like their own rig. So as we couldn’t find what we were looking for, we came up with the idea of heading back where we had parked and celebrate there. Where was that? Well, since there were no camping spots in the city, we had all camped in the middle of the city, in a paid parking lot that also provided showers and toilets. That night we had our own small overland party right there that ended by getting take away pizza. For the record, the place we ordered from mentioned that we were their first customers in a car park. So we left our legend in Quito, together with Joe & Jose, Nicole and Chris from burritocharmer.com and John and Mandi from johnandmandi.com. Safe travels to you all and we hope we will see you again soon!!! Next day we made it to the nearby thermals of Papallacta in order to soak in the hot steaming pools and recover from the hang-over.
Next stop was Volcán Chimborazo (6263m) called ‘Taita’ (father) by the indigenous people. As mentioned earlier, it is the country’s tallest mountain and because of Earth’s equatorial bulge, Chimborazo is also both the furthest point from the centre of the earth and the closest terrestrial point to the stars. A hulking giant topped by a massive glacier. We had planned to spend the night here but we arrived late because after 17:00 o’clock you are not allowed in the protected area in order to reach Refugio 1. We didn’t know that, so with no other option left and after the compulsory photos, we pushed further to the village of Salinas. This village sits lower at the base of a dramatic and precipitous high páramo (highlands) and it is famous for its cheese makers.
Cuenca, our next destination, is Ecuador’s most important and beautiful colonial city and dates back to the 16th century. Cuenca’s historic centre seems like a place that time keeps forgetting. Nuns march along streets, kids roam the streets in Catholic-school uniforms and historic churches are seen everywhere, adding a time travel feel to Cuenca’s everyday life.
Here is the country’s centre of traditional crafts, including ceramics, metalwork and the internationally famous Panama hat. A visit to one of the producing factories was almost obligatory as it was a new fancy hat to be bought for Rochelle. More shopping, grrr!!! Lastly and before we headed back to the coast, we paid a visit to the beautiful Vilcabamba. Rumor has it that the balmy air is synonymous with longevity and those who come here end up spending more time than originally planned – sometimes months, sometimes years… The area’s beautiful scenery, mild weather and laid-back vibe attract everyone, from backpackers to North American and European retirees. The hills are dotted with big new fancy houses and the town’s plaza is overtaken by expat-owned health shops and other similar businesses. Remember Rachel and Richard, the RnR on the road duo that we hanged out with in Colombia? Here we joined forces one more time and you guessed it; another great dinner was organized, accompanied by the necessary dose of booze and overland chat-chat, before we said once again goodbye to them as they always seem to be ahead of us.
After our return to Guayaquil, in order to organize the tickets for our Galapagos trip, we had a gap of three days prior to our departure. As we didn’t want to spend them in the city, we headed to Balencito, a small resort village outside Salinas. The pleasant surprise in Balencito was the hostal (guesthouse) we picked to stay. Built high on a cliff overlooking the bay and more of a museum that the owners have created here, it has the most impressive collection of boat related art crafts. The building itself looks like a lighthouse and has so much detail in it. As for the hospitality of the owners, it was so exceptional that we even ended up storing Voukefalas here while we were away to the islands.
Then there were the GALAPAGOS. Whatever anyone might have told you is still not enough and the only way to get the full picture is to pay a visit in person. In our case, we picked not to experience them as part of a cruise as most visitors do but independently. No matter what way you pick though, get ready for a once in a lifetime breathtaking experience. Our first port of call was the Island of San Cristobal. Some local boosters say that San Cristobal is the capital of paradise. It’s the only island with fresh water and an airport in town and it has several easily accessible visitor sites. As soon as we settled down, we decided to take a walk on the waterfront. What we saw there was really unexpected. Hundreds of seals were enjoying the sun lying all over the place without any fear of humans. Pelicans and frigate birds were roaming above and some small sea iguanas where exploring the lava shores. In other words, it is a whole primate zoo in real life. We spent four wonderful days here exploring the island from land and sea. In the land we visited the giant tortoises and looked everywhere for Galapagos most famous inhabitant, the blue-footed boobies, but without any luck. Out in the sea we couldn’t help ourselves from taking a day’s dive trip, where we came face to face with black tip sharks and the small Galapagos sharks, as well as the hammerheads, a species that was high in our dive to see list. Through our stay on the island though, the most important lesson for us was how the humans respect the animals and the animals respond with trust to that respect. This place was a piece of paradise on earth if you ask us!!!
Next stop was the much less inhabited and far more expensive island of Isabella, the biggest island of the archipelago. It’s a relatively young island and consists of a chain of five intermittently active volcanoes. Despite its size and imposing volcanoes (we didn’t visit them because of the weather) it has its delicate sights like frigates flying, penguins making their way along the cliffs and sea iguanas that in numbers overcome by far the humans living on the island that captures the visitor’s imagination. Just outside our hostal, in a small pond we had flamingos fishing among other kinds of birds and around the corner it was the breeding area for thousands of small sea iguanas. Add to that a magnificent beach and you get the picture!!!
Next and last in our twelve-day visit was the island of Santa Cruz that has the most developed town in the Galapagos. Almost every visitor to the archipelago spends at least some time here. However, our advice is to stay longer as the island of Santa Cruz is more than just a jumping point, it is a destination in itself. Except the base for the informative Charles Darwin foundation, the island is full of sites, easily accessible beaches, remote highlands in the interior and a base for adventurous activities off the tourist trail. The time we were here, there was an international surf competition and a yachting race happening at the same time. Both in “lower level” than our standards to participate sounds like a good excuse to me. So we simply explored the island itself as well as the ones nearby. Seymour, Gordon’s Rock and Mosquera were just some of them. Another day long diving trip was organized from here as well as a couple of very informative daytrips to see the animals that we had left out, the blue-footed boobies. With that done, our time in this piece of paradise called Galapagos was completed and upon arrival back to our base, we waived for the last time goodbye to Ecuador and made our way back into Peru, straight for Swiss Wassi in Zorritos.