Well Toto, we're not in Colombia anymore. We arrived in Quito at night, not our favorite time to arrive in a new place. Whenever we get somewhere new at night we always feel a bit sketchy about it. New towns just don't seem as nice or as safe at night as they do during the day, so getting a first impression at night doesn't usually make us feel so great. But usually after we explore in the morning, in the light of day, we feel much better about the location. Quito, however, wasn't quite that way. It's as sketchy during the day as it is at night, and we weren't the biggest fans of the place.
I wouldn’t necessarily say we didn't like Quito, but we certainly didn’t love it. And all of the stories we'd heard prior to arriving didn't help. In researching all of the scams and tricks of pickpockets, we read warnings of the following (which are really applicable to most cities we went to, but these tips were particularly stressed in Quito):
- When on a bus, never put your belongings on the floor between your feet. It's likely that your things will be stolen. Either someone will open your bag if you drift off to sleep, or small children will crawl beneath the seat, slash the bag with a knife or scissors, and then take everything through the hole in the bag.
- If you have a camera, make sure it's connected to a strap that you can securely wrap around your body, otherwise it might get snatched.
- If you take out your smartphone, hold it with two hands, or else it might get snatched.
- Don't carry around too much cash, it's very possible that you'll get held up during the day.
- Don't hail a cab, always have the hostel or restaurant call one for you. Many cabs are fake and the driver will take you to a remote place and rob you.
- Don't walk outside after dark, always take a cab.
So we didn’t have the greatest expectations of Ecuador's capital city. We tried to give the place the benefit of the doubt though, while staying acutely aware of our belongings and surroundings at all times. And good thing, too, because Quito seemed to live up to its reputation, unlike most other major cities we have visited which had always turned out to be much more safe than we were led to believe. Our roommate in our hostel, which was really good by the way, personally knew someone who had been stabbed a few days prior, in broad daylight, because he didn't have enough money on him when he was held up at knife point. The story was that his hostel warned him to only take enough money for the cab in case he was robbed. Turns out that his robbers weren't pleased that he didn't have much cash on him and stabbed him. You just can't win with these people! And then, on our walking tour, we met a couple who had been robbed at knife point the night before. They had been at a salsa club, dancing until about 3am, when all of a sudden about 40 police officers stormed the bar and made everyone leave immediately. The police would not help them get a cab to get to their Airbnb and they had no option but to walk. Within about 30 seconds of walking home, they were robbed. They're fine, they were not hurt. But dang - this city is serious. We haven't felt unsafe on our entire trip, but we felt unsafe in Quito.
So we didn't stay for long, just two nights, long enough to take a free walking tour during the day and get out of there. And the walking tour was quite good! The guide was very nice, energetic, spirited and excited to show us around the historical center of Quito. We enjoyed walking through the central market, complete with its many fruit stands and flower vendors. Apparently Ecuador's biggest export is flowers…who knew? We enjoyed the Spanish architecture of the grand plaza and the presidential palace (and we learned that the president doesn't live there because several presidents who have were killed out front!), and we learned that the Ecuadorian people LOVE candy - it was sold everywhere.
Our hostel, like I mentioned, was really great. It's called Community Hostel, and it's quite large! The ceilings were at least 14 feet high and there were beds for about 40 people. They had a dining structure similar to La Serrana in Salento, Colombia - you could sign up for breakfast and dinner and eat with the group at large communal tables. And I have to say, the chef was REALLY good! One morning we had gorgeous, perfectly cooked French toast. One night we had the biggest, most stuffed tacos I've ever seen, and they were delightfully fresh. Considering the fact that local Ecuadorian food is boring, we ate as many meals there as we could. There would be plenty of time for the standard local fare of white rice, fried chicken, fries, and soup, later, like in our next destination, Quilatoa.
We got out of Quito as quickly as possible. We would have loved to be able to hike around Cotopaxi Volcano, but the park was closed to due volcanic activity. So instead of spending more time in a city we didn't feel too good about, we decided to head to the very remote, very tiny village of Quilatoa to get some hiking in. Quilatoa is a water-filled caldera and is about 2 miles wide. It was formed over 800 years ago and is a pretty interesting site! Now having been there, and going through the headache of getting there, I wouldn't recommend it to others, but I'm still glad we went.
After taking two fairly dirty and rundown looking buses over about six hours, connecting through Latacunga, another rather large and seemingly poor and sketchy city, we arrived in the super tiny village of Quilatoa. This is, hands down, the smallest village we've stayed in yet. There was one main dirt road with no more than 20 buildings, most of which were hostels and guest houses. We didn't have a place booked ahead of time because they were way overpriced online, so our first task when we stepped off the bus was to find lodging for the night.
We checked out a few places, and ultimately decided to stay at Hostel Chukirawa, against our better judgement. I say that because was did do a bit of research before we arrived, and the reviews of Hostel Chukirawa said something to the effect of "It's probably your best bet, but be warned - it's like camping but with walls." So we weren't expecting much when handed over our money to the less than friendly owner. The room had an iron fireplace in the corner, which we were excited about using because it gets COLD at night. Unfortunately, we were told that they had no firewood, so we couldn't use it. Over breakfast in the morning, we chatted with the three other people staying at the hostel and commented on how freezing cold our brick walled room was over night. One guy asked why we didn't use our fireplace. "We were told they don't have any wood," we told him. "Oh that's weird. My room had a whole stack," he replied. And sure enough, we found a stack of at least a dozen logs stacked in his room. What the hell?? Also, when we booked the room the owners confirmed they had hot water. "Hay agua caliente en la ducha?" we asked. "Si, si, agua caliente." I learned that was not at all true when I tried to take a shower that night. In an attempt to warm up in our ice box of a room, I went to take a nice hot shower, except the water never got much above room temperature. So I just put on all my warm clothes and got under the covers instead. Who needs a shower anyway? And lastly, we planned out our trek around the caldera the next day around when breakfast was served. We were told it would be ready at 7:30am, so we were dressed and ready to eat at 7:25 so we could head out for our long trek right after. An hour later we were finally eating. Seriously, this place was the worst!
Ok, so Quilatoa sounds pretty terrible so far, doesn't it? I'm sure you're thinking, "Why would anyone go there?". For the hike around the caldera! The 10.7 km hike is pretty awesome, and at almost 13,000 feet, it's really hard! We were joined on our trek by some adorable stray dogs who escorted us about half way before joining another group of hikers. And on our way we passed a few locals who reminded us of the tribal women of Sapa, Vietnam. The ladies wore similar outfits - black skirts with colorful tops and ponchos. The keep their very long hair in either one ponytail wrapped in fabric, or long braids, and they carry their kids on their backs with giant wraps. Even kids upwards of five years old were carted around like that! The differences between their outfits and those of Sapa, though, were the additions of the Ecuadorian hats, colorful socks, and kitten heels. All of the ladies wore little heels, even the one we saw herding sheep along the trail! The whole look took us about 4.5 hours, and we were wiped out when we got back to the hostel.
Determined not to stay another night in the ice box, we decided to make our way to our next stop, the cute town of Cuenca. Getting there, though, was no easy feat. Everything in Ecuador is just harder! The first step was to get back to the bus terminal in Latacunga. We caught the afternoon bus that was supposed to go back to Latacunga, but it dropped us off 30 min down the road and told us to wait for the next one. Wait, what? Confused and somewhat stranded, we started talking with a British guy who was also on the bus. The three of us ended up sharing a car the rest of the way for $3 each (which was kind of a lot). We piled into the truck, the practically 6'5" Brit in front, and me and Jake in back. In moments we discovered that the transport we just overpaid for wasn't just for us - our driver picked up two more people who crammed into the back seat with me and Jake. On our not-very-comfortable one hour drive, we chatted with the Brit. He'd had a pretty bad day. "I was on the bus with my bag between my legs…" he started. We interrupted him, "Oh no! Let me guess, was your stuff stolen?" "Yeah!" he exclaimed. He had fallen asleep and when he woke up, everything in his bag was gone. So even though he'd just spent all day getting to Quilatoa, he needed to make the trek back to Latacunga to file a police report so his camera and other items would be covered by travel insurance. Poor guy.
So when we made it to Latacunga we had a few options:
- Stay overnight in Latacunga. No thanks.
- Take a long bus directly to Cuenca and arrive at 11pm with nowhere to stay booked, and then go find a place on foot. No thanks.
- Retrace our steps all the way back to Quito, take an overnight bus with a reputable company from there, and arrive in Cuenca at 7am the next morning. Yes.
So off we went, all the way back to Quito. On the way we met another Brit named Fabian. He was sitting next to me and put his bag on the floor. "I recommend that you keep your bag on your lap while taking buses in Ecuador," I told him, and explained what had just happened to the other guy. He said that in the week he's been in Ecuador and all the buses he's taken, nothing bad has happened yet, but was grateful for the warning. After having our bag stolen in Rome I vowed to let people know if I think something might happen to their stuff, and since it seems to happen frequently in Ecuador, I didn't want him to fall victim! We arrived at the Quito bus terminal and have about five hours to kill before the next ride. After yet another meal of soup, chicken, rice, and fries, we boarded our 9 hour overnight bus to Cuenca. What a day!
We arrived in Cuenca at about 6:30am, hours before the city came to life. Thankfully, after a cheap breakfast at a tiny café across the street from our hostel, we were able to check in to our room at La Casa Cuencana. The first order of business - take a shower! After not showering in Quilatoa, hiking all day, and then taking a night bus, I was in desperate need of getting clean. Whenever I can't shower for a few days I look and feel like what I would call "a dirty backpacker", and it makes me a very cranky lady. This particular morning I was feeling cranky, and I was much nicer to my husband after a nice hot shower! Sorry Jake!
We spent most of that first day working, and got a lot accomplished - we finalized the dates for our Machu Picchu trek, Patagonia horseback riding adventure, and even booked our flights home at the end of January! We did get out for a few hours, too. We had read that the small, colonial town of Cuenca is much safer than other Ecuadorian cities, and we could feel it when we were out and about. But, ever vigilant! There were signs outside the cathedral in the main square reminding people to keep their purses closed and their belongings close as pickpockets were common. As we walked around town, exploring the cute and colorful buildings and the pretty, tree-lined river, I kept my camera attached to its strap which I wound tightly around my wrist. I usually have it attached to a clip on my purse strap, but we were told to put the cameras away when not using them as someone may try to grab them. By having it attached to my wrist, I could slip it in and out of my pocket easily. We wandered to the various churches and flower markets, watched street performers play instruments and window shopped. Suddenly a man across the street caught my eye. He was starting at me, but not in the eye. He was starting at my camera in my hand. Abruptly, he crossed the street just behind me at a jog. I thought to myself that it was strange that he ran across the street as there was no traffic, there was no reason to hurry, and the look he gave me was already a bit odd. Jake was about 50 feet in front of me down the street, and instead of lingering to take more pictures, I paid attention to my tingling spidey-sense and made my way to him, putting my camera securely in my zipper pocket. I could feel the stranger behind me, walking quickly to catch up to me. As I approached, Jake turned to smile at me, and with my facial expression I sent him a message, "Look behind me." Jake looked past me to the man who was hungry for my camera and looked him in the eye. As soon as the stranger noticed my tall husband looking him straight in the face, he ducked into a shop and disappeared. Crisis averted! Talking about it later with Jake, I wondered what would have happened - the camera was really strapped tightly to me; had he tried to grab it, he would have taken my whole self with it. That would have been an interesting situation! I'm glad that we didn't have to find out how it would have gone down. And I'm glad that my big strong husband was there to protect me!
We finished our day of exploring the town with a short walk around the main square, where we were approached by a group of adult university students learning English. They asked if we would participate in their project and allow them to interview us on camera. Of course we obliged! They asked where we were from, where we were going in Ecuador, what our favorite Ecuadorian song is (to which we had zero response), and if we have friends in Ecuador. After our interview session, Jake and I got lunch - ice cream at a shop called Tutto Freddo. It was good, but not good enough to describe in great detail. (Side note, while on our trip, I have realized that Jake and I have a serious love of ice cream, as I'm sure you've noticed, and I cannot wait to get an ice cream maker at home!)
The main reason for visiting Cuenca was to get some hiking in - Cuenca is rather close to several hiking trails and the large Cajas National Park. So the next morning we caught the bus up to the park for what was supposed to be a nice, long, pretty, challenging-but-not-too-challenging hike. Like most buses in South America, we just told the bus driver when we wanted to get off rather than wait for a specific stop. The trail head we took was in the middle of nowhere right next to the road in the mountains. When we jumped off the bus, we were all alone - no ranger station, no official entrance sign, just an obvious trail leading from the pavement. Time for adventure!
The weather was perfect - a bit chilly with big clouds, blue sky, and sunshine. We started our hike up through the hills, up, up, up, to the highest point of our day long, 15km hike. The terrain was dotted with ice cold blue lakes and the views went on forever. At the top of the hill we were excited to make our decent into the valley, to see this gorgeous park that not many tourists travel to. Our spirits and energy were high. Things literally and figuratively went downhill from there.
When we researched the trail online, we saw that it was listed as "Medium Difficulty", and that it runs along several pretty lakes. We purposefully started at the top so we would walk downhill most of the time, and the topo map showed a fairly gradual decline. Boy oh boy was the info online incorrect! True, the trail did run along several lakes, but some of them ran literally on the cliff edge of the ice cold lakes, and we had to scale rock walls, climb over tree trunks, and hope that we didn't slip and fall into the water below. True, we did walk downhill for just about the whole time, but it was not gradual! We had to jump off rock ledges, climb down mountainsides, and use trees as a hand and footholds as we scrambled down to the valley floor. And, to make things more difficult, the weather turned and was sprinkling on and off for the last four hours of our excursion, making the ground outrageously muddy (thank goodness for waterproof boots!), and surfaces very slippery. If this trail had been in a US national park, there is no way that it would have been open. I can't imagine any park rangers that would allow people to hike on this trail at home! Perhaps we should have seen it coming - soon after we started, when we were still quite thrilled with the day, we passed a sign with trail information on it. Our trail was marked as "difficult" and was timed at 8 hours. "There's no way it's going to be that hard," we said to each other, "The website showed the whole thing and it doesn't look that tough." Perhaps we should have taken that sign as, well, a sign.
Tired, filthy, and damp, we finally reached the road just before dark. We waved down our bus and jumped on. Exhausted, I napped for 30 minutes until we got back to town. As I said before, I really like to take hot showers. This is especially true after hard workouts and long hikes, like this one. I was super excited to take a nice, hot shower, wash away all of the mud and grime from the day, get warm, and relax my muscles. Only there wasn't any hot water. Wrapped in a towel and near tears, I walked back into the bedroom. Jake knew what was wrong before I even opened my mouth and went to ask the owner about it. Unfortunately, the water heater was broken and there was nothing they could do. So I took a cold shower and crawled into bed. Since we were heading to the Galapagos the next day and had to wake up at 3am to catch a 5 hour bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil where we would catch our flight to the islands, I was happy to go to bed at 8pm. Jake followed me soon after, and we tried to drift off to sleep. But Ecuador had yet another challenge in store for us - moments after we turned our the light, a loud, rowdy, stomping, large group of people checked in to the hostel and started to have a party in the rooms next door and above. The owner knocked on our door to see if we were disturbed by the new guests. She took one look at me lying in bed with ear plugs and a face mask, and said she would take care of it. Minutes later, the ruckus stopped, and were able to get some sleep.
Enough with Mainland Ecuador - get me to the islands! Galapagos, here we come!