Hopping on the bus from Montanita we had a couple of minutes of panic as I couldn't find the bus tickets we had bought the night before. I had been on breakfast errand duty that morning and the ticket must have fallen out of my pocket along the way somewhere. Fortunately the guy at the bus company had a passenger list so we were able to get duplicate tickets issued with just minutes to spare and we settled in for the journey to Guayquil where we had to transfer to another bus onto Cuenca. The buses from Guayquil supposedly run via two different routes - one taking 5 hours and the other one only 3. We thought that we were on the 3 hour route but it took us about 4 hours in the end.
The journey was pretty spectacular, up through the mountains, and into the clouds which disguised the steep valleys dropping away from the side of the road.
During the rest of this trip we have been looking at places we want to stay online and just rocking up without a reservation and it hasnt been a problem, however when we arrived in Cuenca it turned out that there was a music festival on that weekend so lots of places were booked out, including our choice. We headed a couple of streets away and found another hostel - not exactly a charmer in terms of atmosphere but all we really needed was a place to sleep anyway. We were both starving so headed out to try and find some dinner and stumbled across an Indian restuarant. It was pretty chilly outside and would make a nice change from the typical south american food we've been eating so we headed in. The food ended up being Pakastani (as did the owner) but it was delicious! They even had a pakastani bread that I could eat which was a nice surprise.
Despite the misnomer Cuenca is actually the main production area of the Panama Hat. They began being produced in Ecuador during the 17th century and the confusion with the name came from the fact that hats were shipped via the Isthmus of Panama before onto their destinations in Asia, the Americas and Europe, acquiring the name that reflected their point of international sale rather than their place of origin. When Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal construction site in 1904 and was photographed wearing one their popularity increased
The two main processes in the creation of a Panama hat are weaving and blocking and every authentic panama hat is handmade. They are commercially graded to indicate quality and the rarest and most expensive hats can have as many as 1600–2500 weaves per square inch and cost upto several hundred, or even thousand, dollars.
Ty was really keen to get a hat and so one of the places we visited was the factory of Homero Ortega, a family run business which has been a key player in the panama hat industry over the last century. They have a great sort of museum set up and you are able to walk around the factory talking to the workers and seeing the dying and shaping processes taking place. After trying on numerous various shades of cream to find just the right colour Ty had his head measured and a tailored hat made specifically for him.
We wandered around the old town afterwards through the flower market (where Ty bought me a rose) and soaked up the atmosphere of the Cuenca's town square and its architecture before spending a couple of really nice relaxing hours at a cafe/restuarant called Cafe Eucalyptus. It must have been owned by an Aussie at some point but the current owner is American. They have a couple of really comfy couches next to a big fireplace and since the weather was a bit average and there wasnt really a lot else to see it was the perfect place to chill out with some yummy food, red wine and continue our international 'shithead' championship. Unfortunately for Ty I was on form and took out the Ecuadorian chapter haha. It was pretty cool at the end of the night as they had marshmallows for toasting on the open fire. I think I discovered my new favourite Spanish word too - marshmallows are 'bessositos de nobia' (little girlfriend kisses) which is so sweet.
Next stop: Mancora (Peru)
A couple of years ago my cousin Andrew did a teaching English/learning Spanish course in a little beach town in Ecuador called Montanita and since it has been a while since our last beach day (well, only a couple of weeks, but that's a long time on this trip!) we decided we would head to the coast to check it out. Now in my mind; and as proved by our visit to Mitad Del Mundo
- Ecuador is on the equator, at the middle of the Earth. Which if I remember my schooling correctly is the part of the Earth which is consistently rotating closest to the sun, so in my brain this means in theory there should be sun at the beach in Ecuador all year round right? Wrong. Montanita greeted us with gloomy grey clouds more reminiscent of our autumn days in London than the tropical blue sky's we had become accustomed to throughout our beach days in Central America.
After a long and rather sleepless overnight bus from Banos to Santa Elena, we transferred to a local bus up the coast with the help of a lovely local man on board, arriving in Montanita about 6am. We had googled a hostel we wanted to stay in, but unfortunately no-one was awake when we arrived so while Ty sat at the beach with our bags I trudged around town trying to find somewhere that was (a) open and (b) not a shithole. When we were looking at places online nothing had rated over 70% on hostelworld which was not a good sign. We found somewhere and managed to get a private room at a budget hotel for the same price that the dorm would have been at the hostel and crashed out for a couple of hours.
Montanita has a bit of a reputation as a party town, and since I was still not feeling 100% I was glad we had arrived on a Sunday, although I could see plenty of evidence of last nights party still lying in the streets waiting for the rubbish collectors to start their work for the day.
Drinks in cocktail alley with Lisa and Willington
The fluffiest baby bird i've ever seen!
Puffy red chests!
We spent our first day wandering around town, checking out the beach and organising a trip for the next day to Isla Del Plata - known locally as the Poor Man's Galapagos - before we met up with Andrew's friend Willington and his fiance, Lisa for some quiet drinks in the appropriately named Cocktail Alley. This one road leading to the beach is full of street vendor bars selling cheap, strong, but yummy cocktails. Seeing them lined up next to each other on a quiet night it was hard to comprehend how they do enough business to survive but Willington said that from Thursday to Saturday the street is absolutely packed and you can't move for people.
The next morning we were up early for our trip to Isla Del Plata. We were pretty excited as we had read that you can see 90% of the animals from the Galapagos at the Island, and since it's June, its also whale watching season so our trip would include that too. We had really wanted to visit the Galapagos but a side trip was well out of our budget. Unfortuantely the trip didn't go quite as planned and we were left a bit disappointed by it. It started with some of the rest of the group being about half an hour late to turn up so we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting to go. They probably should have just left them behind but I geuss they felt bad since you had to prepay the trip. After a 45 min drive to nearby Puerto Lopez we hopped onto the boat. I noticed that one of the crew kept fiddling with the engine whenever the captain said something to him but didnt think too much of it. The plan was that we were supposed to do some whale watching, head to the island to walk around, have lunch, go snorkelling, more whale watching and then back to shore. Everyone was pretty excited when someone shouted out that they had seen a whale but as I stood up to have a look, our guide started ordering everyone to sit back down as we were carrying on but going to see some more by the island. Frustrating but ok, will wait for them at the island. Except we didn't stop for any. Arriving at the island we were a bit annoyed to realise that both of the guides with us only spoke Spanish. This was our bad however, as when we had talked to the other 2 agencies in town they had both said there would be an English guide with us and when we spoke to the company we ended up going with the man spoke English and we didn't think to double check. It was pretty frustrating though as our 3 hour guided walk around the island was pretty uninformative as we don't have the vocabulary we needed to learn about medicinal plants and animal species. There were also a few other people on the tour who didn't speak Spanish either so it would have been good to have one guide at least who could speak some English but never mind.
Taking photos of the rugged coastline
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While I don't doubt that you potentially can see upto 90% of the animal species that are on the Galapagos, in reality they have rather over hyped it. We did see a turtle, a flying sting ray and about 5 different species of birds (although a couple of them were pretty cool - one with puffy red chests and some blue footed boobies) and a couple of destructive rats before heading back to the boat for lunch. I had told them that I am gluten free and they had assured me that it wasn't a problem and I didn't need to bring anything with me, with a guy even coming to find out who I was before we left the office however as the sandwiches were being handed around and I asked where my 'salad' was it was clear from their glances at each other that nothing had been prepared. Next minute I'm handed a plate with some lettuce and a piece of tomatoe and cucumber out of the remaining sandwiches mmmm so filling! Ty hopped in for a swim and a snorkel but since he said the water was pretty murky I gave it a miss. I noticed the crew fiddling with the engine again while everyone was swimming and it soon became clear that one of them was no longer working, meaning the whale watching was scratched and our 1 hour 15 minute ride turned into a 2 hour 45 minute white knuckle rollercoaster ride back to shore through the increasingly large swell. While we all had life jackets on which (mostly) fit, the fact that the boat seemed to have no radio and its lights not working as dusk was approaching did not fill us with much confidence. Finally arriving back in Montanita 3 hours later than expected we went to the tour agent to have a bit of a chat with the manager. Fortunately he was able to see that things hadn't quite lived up to the promises and offered for us to go on another whale watching trip the next day (on a different boat!); an offer we decided to accept as we really wanted to see the whales. The boat seemed a lot more sturdy and although we only managed to see 2 whales I'm still glad we got to see them. It was pretty cool too because they would swim up pretty close to the boat and kind of circle it like they were playing with us.
Next stop: Cuenca
Looking for whales
Showing us a baby whale vertabrae
Checking out of Quito we caught a day time bus to Banos with Asal and Paul. The Ecuadorian countryside is totally gorgeous and I spent most of the trip alternating between reading my book and staring out the window at the contrasting landscapes. Steep and barren one minute and lush forests the next. Arriving in Banos we checked into a hostel that Paul had found but our room turned out to be a bit damp, and since Ty was still feeling a bit average and I felt like I was coming down with his cold we decided to move the next day to another place - half the price but a private room!
While Paul went off mountain biking, Asal, Ty and I decided against a 5 hour hike taking a taxi instead up to a spot on the hill behind Banos called Casa del Arbol which has a grown up's sized tree house and a swing out over the edge of the hill with some amazing views over the valleys. The man who owns the house is actually the person who monitors the active Tungurahua volcanoe which towers over the town. The volcanoe erupts on average every 3 weeks, and while any lava which flows usually does it down the side away from the town he has a fairly important job. Chatting with our taxi driver while playing on the swing he told us that incredulously the Ecuadoran government currently doesn't pay the man so he survives off whatever tips tourists bring him to play on his swing.
Chilling on the swing with the volcanoe trying to peer through the clouds!
Banos is tucked into the mountains and fog and misty rain had started to settle in so we headed to a delicious little cafe which made some super smooth hot chocolates and hung out for a while before heading back to the hostel to relax. Banos is getting a bit of a reputation as the place to go for adventure activities in Ecuador, and there are certainly a lot to choose from. Ty was really keen to do some white water rafting but I wasn't so much and since he was still feeling a bit average we decided to go canyoning instead. Not entirely sure that decision was a sound one as spending 5 hours abseiling through ice cold mountain water surely helped progress my cold but we had a really awesome time doing it. I had been canyoning in NZ at Uni but Ty had never been so I'm glad he got to have a go. We also had a private tour as there was no-one else wanting to do it that day so it was just the two of us and our guide.
Arriving back in town we headed for a bit of pampering - Banos is also known for its cheap massages and after using shoulder, back and ab muscles all day it was heaven to have someone work out all the knots and tension before we headed to the thermal hot pools to soak away the night. We slept SO good that night but waking up my cold had fully arrived so we decided to stay an extra day to try and recover. I spent most of it in bed curled up watching yet more CSI and Bones, eating choconannas (really good for my sore throat haha) before a trip to try out the hot pools at the other end of town. We were a bit disappointed by the second pools. They were more expensive to get into, the water temperatures weren't as nice at the first one, and they don't rent towels (something we didn't find out until after we had gone in) trying to charge about $10 usd for one! I wouldn't even spend that much on a towel in NZ so we just used our tshirts to dry ourselves off.
Next stop: Montanita
Chilling at the bottom of one of the falls
Yay, we made it!
For some reason there are no bus companies which cross the Ecuadorian/Colombian border, meaning that people are required to walk across and then get onto transport on the other side. Its pretty straightforward and crossing into Ecuador we spotted another kiwi/german couple that we had met at our hostel in Pasto the night before, so we all shared a cab to Tulcan, the closest town. Both Dafid and I had problems with our passports not scanning at the border, I think to do with the fact that we both have really new passports and Colombia's system cant deal with them, as I had the same trouble coming into Colombia.
Arriving in Tulcan we spotted a bus just about to leave for Quito and loaded our bags on. The conductor told us we had 5 minutes before it left and said that Dafid's girlfriend had time to go to the bathroom, except before she came back the bus started to drive away. Dafid ended up having to jump in front of the bus to make them stop as there was no way there were going to wait!
Its pretty normal on central/south american buses for bad action movies to be played but the bus driver decided that the completely inappropriate Final Destination 5 would be a good choice. The opening scene of the movie involves a bus crashing of a bridge and everyone on board dying. I'm not a fan of horror films at the best of times and we were lucky enough to be sitting underneath the speaker which was being played at full volume meaning we got to hear every bit of bone crunching and skull smashing which was going on. I spent quite a bit of time with my fingers in my ears!
When we finally arrived in Quito we got a cab to our hostel. We had arrived as the sun was setting and the bus station is a good 30 minutes away from 'old town' where we were staying. We had heard warnings about Quito's public transport at night time and since we weren't quite sure what our directions were decided a cab would be the safest. We only had to pay $8 which seemed pretty good, although I'm sure we were overcharged as he wouldn't put the meter on. But $8 for half an hour taxi ride still seemed like a good deal so we didn't fight it.
Cool volcanoe out the window of the bus
It turned out that Asal, our friend from the bus in Ecuador, was heading to the same hostel as us, and since we haddn't been able to book online and she was heading straight there while we visited Sanctuario Los Lajas
we asked her to make a reservation for us at Community Hostel. Community Hostel is located right in the middle of the 'Old town' and was a great place to stay - super comfy beds and pillows, although it was a bit frustrating that there was only 2 bathrooms which meant there was always a wait. Not annoying enough to not make us stay there again but still frustrating when you were busting for a pee!
Checking in and it turned out we were in the same dorm as Asal and her Aussie mate Paul. Ty was still feeling pretty average so after some terrible chicken for dinner from a rip off KFC style place we had a quiet one and headed for bed. The next morning we joined Paul and Asal for a trip up the teleferico (cable car) on the side of Volcan Pichincha. The cable car is pretty steep and takes you from Quito, which is at 2950m above sea level to 4050m, something I didn't learn until after we visited, which makes me feel better about the fact that I noticed the altitude change. There is an awesome view out over the city from the top. The city is a sprawling metropolis and I was surprised to learn that there are only just under 2 million people living there as it seemed like it would be much more.
Heading back down I was glad that it wasn't any windier than it was, as the car was swaying a bit in the breeze, making me a bit nervous. Ty and Paul's conversation about what would happen if the cable broke making me feel so much more at ease about it all! haha
Back at the bottom of the cable car we decided that we had enough time left to head out to Mitad del Mundo - the middle of the world (ie: the zero point at the equator). We didn't quite realise how far away it was and so were shocked by the taxi's fare quote of $35 deciding we would catch public transport instead as Jesus and Jakoba had told us we could get there for less than $5 return.
We caught a cab to the closest bus/tram station and hopped on. We knew we had to get to 'Ofelia' - the end of the line and then get on another bus which had 'Mitad del Mundo' written on it. What we didn't realise was that almost all of the buses that go from the Ofelia station have 'Mitad del Mundo' on the back and we very nearly ended up heading in the wrong direction, having to yell at the driver to let us off when we realised our mistake. After another half an hour on the (right) bus we arrived at the centre of the world. As it was a Monday the site was reasonably deserted making it easy for us to take silly equator photos without lots of photo bombers in the background. Ty was really keen on flushing the toilet on both sides of the line but was disappointed to find that there is only one bathroom on the site haha. Paul was determined that the whole clockwise/anticlockwise flushing thing was a myth and that being on one side of the line vs the other wouldn't make a difference so close together so we had a bit of good natured debate about that. We visited the median line in Greenwich, England, so it was kinda cool to be visiting the middle here in Ecuador.
The following morning we had a lazy lie in before wandering around the old town looking at the beautiful buildings and then walked up to the new town to look for a Panama Hat for Tyro, although after a bit more research we discovered they actually come from Cuenca, a town in Southern Ecuador which we are planning on visiting anyway so we will wait until then to buy one. Ecuador was playing Argentina in the football that evening in a World Cup qualifier match so we joined lots of the locals in one of the town squares to watch. Ty thought it was really interesting that the Ecuadorian's don't seem to 'bleed' football like their central/south american counterparts as we didnt see very many taxi's displaying their teams flags or vendors hawking shirts on the street corners which had been everywhere in the days leading up to the Colombia match a couple of weeks before when we were in Cartegena.
Next stop: Banos