When we initially started planning South America, Colombia, Peru and Chile were our highlights. We merely considered Ecuador as a country to cross to get to Peru from Colombia. Turns out we were wrong! Ecuador is one stop location for everything – mountains, treks, jungle, beach and wildlife! Like they said, “great things come in small packages”.
We got to Ecuador after spending an amazing month and a half in Colombia. We didn’t have much expectations but it blew us away on the first day itself. We visited the Otavalo Market on Saturday and were impressed with the presence of native culture – something that was missing in Colombia.
As we continued to spend days in this country we saw the natural beauty of it. Massive mountains, active volcanoes, canyons, waterfalls, lakes and rivers kept blowing us away one after the other.
At one point during our travel we decided to visit the Amazon and Galapagos Islands. This combination turned out to be like a ‘safari in Africa’. We saw plenty of wildlife in both locations and experienced the different cultures and weathers of the jungle and coast.
Just one thing to note though, because Ecuador uses US Dollars as their currency, it is comparatively more expensive than its neighbors. In Colombia we spent an average of USD 55 for both of us while in Ecuador the average day rate was USD 90 (minus Galapagos Islands cost).
Having said that, we still highly recommend Ecuador for its natural beauty. If you like to laze on the beach, trek for days or just enjoy wildlife, this is one place that offers it all.
We met only two kinds of travelers on the road – ones who wished they were going to Galapagos Islands and ones who visited Galapagos Islands. While it is expensive, we found out it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg! We enjoyed the archipelago nevertheless.
A little intro
The Galápagos Archipelago are a group of volcanic islands lying in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador. The archipelago is surrounded by the ocean currents which have made its flora and fauna some of the most unique in the world. It is also famous for being one of main places which inspired Charles Darwin’s Evolution Theory.
Galapagos Islands are an Ecuadorian Province and in 1959 were made into a National Park. It is isolation from the mainland and as it is the primary tourist destination in Ecuador, it is expensive. However, we learnt that the money spent in Galapagos is well-spent.
We took a flight from Guayaquil instead of Quito. This saved us around USD 100 on the tickets. There are two airports in Galapagos Islands – Baltra and San Cristobal. As an advice, we would say its best to get to Baltra and from there to Santa Cruz. San Cristobal is on the eastern end of the archipelago while Santa Cruz is more central. It’s easier to see more islands from Santa Cruz.
At Guayaquil airport, our luggage was scanned and we had to pay USD 20 per person tourist fee. Once we got to Baltra airport, we had to pay USD 100 per person as National Park fee for entering Galapagos Islands. In addition, there was a cost of USD 10 per person for to and fro bus journey from the airport to Baltra channel. That was the end of the official costs.
The journey from Baltra airport to Santa Cruz takes around an hour fifteen minutes – 15 min bus ride to the channel, a 90 seconds ferry across to Santa Cruz and a 45 minutes bus ride to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. The ferry was USD 1 per person while the bus was USD 2 per person. We stayed at Hotel Francis Drake for USD 30 a night for a room without aircon.
Shopping for tours
There are several ways to explore Galapagos Islands. You have the options of doing a cruise around islands or staying on inhabited island and doing day trips. Option 1 was too expensive for us even with the last minute prices. The cheapest and best cruise we found while at Galapagos was for USD 1550 per person for 8 days. Though this cruise had the best itinerary for the price, we couldn’t afford it as we are backpacking. We had to go with option 2.
We visited around 5 tour agencies to check prices for day trips and picked day trips on different islands. We even managed to spend 2 days and 1 night on Isabela island!
The day trips from Santa Cruz ranged from USD 90 to USD 200 depending on the distance. We highly recommend getting to Galapagos and dedicating a day to shop and plan your activities. Booking from overseas or even mainland Ecuador is way expensive.
Seymour – Diving
We dived with Albatross Diving in Santa Cruz. They provided us with full length wet suits, diving shoes and all other equipment diving related. We reached the dive shop at 6:50am from where we took a car to Baltra channel and a half an hour boat ride to Seymour Island. The island itself is a mecca for birds and we were able to see blue footed boobies and frigate birds on the cliffs of the island.
The tour group included some casual divers as well as seasoned divers and beginners like me. The casual divers went first and we snorkeled around in the meantime. This was our first time in the water in the Galapagos and we were able to see a sea turtle, sharks and a ton of fish. That topped more than anything I had seen before in the water.
The first dive was no less exciting. The visibility was 8-10 meters and the sea was full of life. We saw huge manta rays, large fish, sharks (white and black pointers) amongst other things. We were all following the guide when he went down to the floor and started watching into the distance. He made a sign of hammerhead and I was nervously looking in the distance but we never saw it. The guide was a little nervous and we spent a long time waiting doing nothing.
After a wait of 45 minutes, we went down again for the second dive in Mosquera Island. The depth was deeper than the previous dive and we saw many of the same animals. However, the cherry was a school of around 12 eagle rays going right past us. It was an unreal feeling just observing such beautiful but dangerous animals just gliding past us.
While the animals were great, we can’t say the same for the guides. We had a limit of 70 bar (air) to return to surface but both guides ignored this and kept going. The second guide was even worse and told me and another fairly beginner girl to ascend by ourselves. It was lucky that her boyfriend was a serious diver and went with us to make sure we don’t end up sick. Moreover, in the second dive Shruti’s air had reached its limit but the guide tried to give her his air and keep going. Not only should he have started ascending before this but the move didn’t work and Shruti was forced to ascend up blowing out. It was very dangerous and it could have been worse. Seeing animals is not worth putting your life at risk like that.
Finally, should you do diving in the Galapagos Islands? If you are an experienced diver who is keen to see hammerhead sharks that exist in specific regions. All other animals are easy to spot by snorkeling.
Santa Cruz Island
Sea Lions, Giant Marine Iguanas, Giant Tortoises and Cactus Trees
Sea lions in the Galápagos are like street dogs in India. You can find them sleeping all along the coast in the day. On our first evening in Galapagos, we visited the main pier and were amazed to see Sea Lions sleeping on benches, pier, floor and tourists were all around them taking pictures.
Marine Iguanas are an unique animal. Apart from being the only iguana species that swims, it is also the only reptile in the world which eats algae from the sea. We saw marine iguanas nesting close to Puerto Ayora while they take in the sun during the day and swim back at night. They are black, scaly and look a little like Godzilla. It takes a while but eventually you get use to seeing them around and liking them.
Giant tortoises are unique to Galapagos too. They can live for several hundred years, weigh upto 300 kilos and are threatened by humans and introduced animals. Charles Darwin Centre in Santa Cruz takes the eggs from the laying areas and raises the young until they are old enough to protect themselves, i.e., their shell gets hard. While we saw several huge tortoise in the centre, it was in a tour to the highland farms that we saw them upclose.
The giant tortoises spend two months in the farms, eat fruits and grass, poop everywhere and chill in small ponds. It is an unique sign of human-tortoise friendship. The farm owners like the tortoises as they clean up and fertile the farm and tourists pay to see them while the tortoises get to eat fallen fruits and mate in a controlled environment. It is amazing to see that such huge animals are scared of us so easily. The cost for the highland tour was USD 45 per person and an additional USD 3 per person at the farm to freely walk around the tortoises. The farm provides rubber boots to prevent ant bites.
The volcanic nature of the islands was included in the same highlands tour. There was a large magma chamber which we didn’t quite understand but we thought neither did the guide. It looked like a mini Blue Mountains.
In addition, we visited a lava cave which was a natural tunnel of 400 metres. The lava passed through this tunnel and the only way the farmers found out about it was when their cows went missing. Apparently, there is very little top soil in the Galapagos and most of the islands have solid volcanic rock underneath. It was a great lesson on the geography of the place.
While in Santa Cruz, we indulged in free activities like Tortuga Bay and Las Grietas. The 45 mins walk to Tortuga Bay was tough as we had to walk in the hot sun but there were amazing flora and fauna on display. Giant cactus trees are native to Santa Cruz island. They look like trees with a bark and have mickey mouse ears. In addition, we saw Darwin’s finches which are different on each island. They are one of the main reasons that Charles Darwin was able to create his theory of evolution. Finches on each island have a common parent but have evolved according to the environment on each island.
Tortuga Bay was a small and bay great for swimming. The beach was beautiful as well but not good for swimming due to the currents.
Las Grietas was about 20 mins walk away from the pier. To get to Grietas, we took a water taxi across the channel for 80 cents and then walked. Upon reaching the location we were completely stunned! A beautiful water channel between two cliffs was definitely the best place to swim! We even indulged in a few jumps, check out the video.
Santa Fe Island
Swimming with the Sea Lions
It was one of Shruti’s dreams to swim with the Sea Lions and I must admit I was curious about it too. We took a day trip to Santa Fe island famous for sea lions and a unique land iguana. Our guide, a small old man, met us and another 7 people at the pier. We took a water taxi to the boat where we realised how small the boat was. This was going to be a fun ride!
As we neared Santa Fe, we found out that we wouldn’t be going on the land – just the water. That worked for Shruti who hates iguanas and lizards. Our first stop was a bay for snorkeling. We saw lots of fish and even an eagle ray. Since there wasn’t a lot to see in this place, the guide got us back in the boat for the next place. On the way, we saw blue footed boobies and other birds sitting on the cliffs.
Our next snorkel area had many large boats already parked. As soon as we got in the water, we realized why this was the case. We were in a bay full of sea lions – all age groups combined! We were snorkeling near the grandfather sea lion who was huge and so old that he didn’t bother moving.
We were watching him for a while till the “kids” showed up and started swimming around us. They went around us and came very close sometimes. We swam with them for a good 30-40 minutes. At one point, I got very close to one only realising that there was a mum and baby. I had to be very careful in case the mum’s maternal instincts kicked in and she attacked me!
It had to be the most fun we have had in travel except maybe Alaska. Sometimes the cheeky sea lions would bite the fins or swim upside down around us. Another time, I had a sea lion come really close to my face and pretend to bite me like a dog might. While they were hungry and have a liking for fish, they never really threatened us. It was an amazing experience which words cannot describe.
On the return journey, the captain and the guide started fishing by putting a line out and simply steering the boat. They caught a tuna and a wahu. Both were huge fish and they hardly had to try at all. It was the first time Shruti and I saw someone fishing and killing the fish. They were also lucky as a big sea lion was after the tuna and nearly grabbed it.
To finish off the day, we snorkeled at a beach on the opposite side of Santa Cruz island. While the visibility was low, we saw a huge sea turtle. Not bad for a day trip which cost only USD 90 per person.
A million year old island with penguins and baby animals
Bartoleme was the other day trip we took from Santa Cruz. In this case, the boat was quite big and luxurious. The distance between most islands in Galapagos is 1-2 hours. Bartolome was around 2 hours and we got to see Daphne Volcano on the way. I also had great sleep sleeping in front of the boat while Shruti took pictures.
Once we reached Bartolome, we realised we were amongst stunning scenery. The volcanic island was dry and desolate but the pohoehoe lava reflected some amazing colors. As we landed on the island, our guide told us we’d we walking up a 104 metre summit in the harsh sun. At every rest point, our guide explained us about the island with signs, animation and dances. He mostly used Spanish so I and some others had to translate for the rest.
The top of the summit though was incredible because the view was picture perfect. The view from the top is actually used as a postcard picture.
The next thing was to snorkel around the most famous site. We were to swim around the torre which is a large rock. The history of this rock is as amazing as itself. Before World War 2, there were two of these rocks. However, American soldiers practised target shots and ended up blowing one of them Anyway, the wildlife was kind of amazing around this rock. We saw lots of big fish, sea lions sleeping on the rock and swimming in the water around us, shark relaxing on sea bed and a ray close by too. For a flash moment, I even saw a penguin swimming around. We were primarily here for the penguins. Alas, that was the last we saw of them or so we thought!
After the snorkeling, our guide was keen on seeing the penguins. He informed us that they sub bathe in the middle of the day and we may be lucky. We took the motor canoe close to the rocks and sure enough, two penguins were sunbathing like they were hot blonde girls with bikinis on a beach. For Shruti, this was a defining moment as she had always wanted to see penguins in the wild.
We though we were done with the animals but no, Galapagos sprang a surprise again. On the beach at Bartoleme, while waiting for lunch to be prepared, we saw a baby ray and many different baby sharks. It was a great end to a great day. After this, we went back to Santa Cruz with a smile! This trip costed us USD 145 per person.
Island has it all
Unlike other islands, we didn’t do a day trip to Isabela. Everyone we met on Galapagos told us we had to go live in Isabela and so we did. Our day started early and we took the ferry at 7am to Isabela. The cost for ferries between habituated islands is USD 30 and we bought our tickets a few days before. The ferry ride was generally boring with some beautiful parts as we saw small islands appear and disappear out of nowhere. An amazing thing in many islands of Galapagos is that the piers are not dredged and therefore boats have to stop at some distance while a water taxi takes you to the pier. Isabela was unique in the area was so shallow and so full of life that we saw sea turtles right next to the pier. We paid USD 5 each to enter Isabela.
Our first stop in Isabela was the Concha Y Perla lagoon. It’s right next to the pier and we hired the snorkeling equipment from the only shop there. The lagoon was beautiful with a wooden walkway over the surrounding mangroves.
As usual, a sea lion was asleep in the sun on the entry to the lagoon. The snorkel around the lake was uneventful until we found a cave going outside the lagoon. We followed it and Shruti spotted an eel.
Later on, we spotted a sea turtle having its meal on the algae. Then a sea lion decided to swim around us and climb up on a rock.
Our next stop were the wetlands and the giant tortoise centre in Isabela. The walk through the wetlands was again tough in the sun but we loved seeing the flamingos standing and sleeping in the water. We had seen flamingos even in Gujarat, India but from afar. In Galapagos, we got to appreciate their beauty and god damn they were so pink and beautiful.
Moreover, while we had seen giant tortoises in Santa Cruz, the specialty on Isabela were the baby giant tortoises. They were sooooooo cute (Yes I lost my manhood) while they enjoyed the water and played with each other. A sight to behold!
At times, Galapagos seems like a zoo where we are the animals and the birds and mammals are there to check us out. As we swam in the beautiful beaches of Isabela that day, we saw so many birds flying over us and other birds diving for fish meters from us. They had no fear whatsoever! The town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela island is a little more than a village. We had a few meals here and they were surprisingly cheap. The accomodation was also relatively cheap at USD 20 per person.
The Tunneles Tour at Isabela
We booked a Tuneles tour from an agency in town for USD 85 per person. Tuneles is Spanish for “The Tunnels”. To be really honest, we had no idea what we would see but sharks and penguins were almost guaranteed. Our trip started in a funny manner. We had talked to another agency and they were USD 5 more expensive. We decided to save that money and guess what, we got driven to the same agency for the tour. Apparently, the agency we paid just cut a deal with the other guys. It would have been awkward but the lady we talked to wasn’t there. Phew!
The tour started with us getting all the equipment and meeting our guide. Gabriel was a seasoned guide and was incredibly knowledgeable. Our boat took us from the town to the far west of the island. Along the way, we stopped at a rock in the middle of the ocean. The main point of this stop was to alert us of the “punto caliente”, the lava opening under Galapagos. The islands in the archipelago were created east to west. The islands on the west are the youngest and Isabela has 5 active volcanoes and the island of Floreana which is basically a volcano. Anyway, the rock in the middle of the ocean was the closest point to earth’s magma point only 3km below from the surface. It didn’t bother the sea lions and nasca boobies who were chilling on top!
As we reached closer to the tuneles, Gabriel told us to watch the water on the sides and sit tight. Apparently, tuneles are a low volcanic rock area and the only way to get in or out was to surf the wave, on a boat. What the f##$! Well, it was too late to back out now. Gabriel pointed out how the captain slowed the engine to a stop before the break and then waits to surf on a big wave across. Well, the captain upped the music, ride the boat hard over and on the left we could see the wave breaking. We were surfing on a boat!!
As we made it across, we were even more impressed with the captain. The tuneles were old lava fields which had disintegrated over time and the sea had made its way in. It was incredibly hard to manouvre a boat in such shallow water. The captain parked the boat and we went on land to discover the lava, cactus species of Isabela and finally, seeing a “sea turtle highway”. We named the water in this area as such due to huge and beautiful turtles which would swim past every few minutes.
There were several “bridges” of lava which were unbelievable. With time, these beautiful work of nature will fall into the water.
Our snorkeling spot was away from this area and we had to ride the wave out. But before that we snorkeled for 30 minutes in shallow waters. We saw schools of fish and penguins sunbathing on a rock. It was an incredible sight to see even though we had seen them before. Shruti was excited yet again!
Our next spot was a little away and on the way there, the captain of boat spotted golden rays close to the surface. I thought what the hell is a golden ray? But too late for any thinking as a group of us got our gear on and jumped into the water. We swam as fast as possible and behold there were a huge number of golden rays swimming in a shape like attacking jets from world war 2. There were so many that we couldn’t count. Shruti lost count at 35. To top it off, we saw baby golden rays as well. To make it clear, golden rays are similar to eagle rays but have a different color and no patterns. They are rare to spot too!
We weren’t done yet. We snorkeled for 40 minutes in the next spot, saw the biggest sea turles, blue footed boobies up close, sharks sleeping in caves and even a sea horse. It’s impossible to relay the events step by step as it was a dream snorkel. Best snorkel of my life for sure!
What to say about Galapagos Islands? Its expensive, it’s a paradise but it’s different from any other islands. The geology of the place has made it the best place to see a huge number of sea animals in one place. After 5 days in Galapagos Islands, it seems like seeing sea turtles, sharks, iguanas, penguins and sea lions together is just a regular thing. However, it could take you a few dives just to see one of those animals in even the best places. In addition, it’s not the animals alone that are the most beautiful in Galápagos. Islands like Bartolome, Isabela, Floreana and even Santa Cruz when seen from the airport are stunning on their own. Therefore, while the tickets, entry and activities are expensive, Ecuador uses that money to preserve the islands so our future generations may enjoy it as well. A must do place in South America!
We were there from Sunday to Sunday, i.e., all activities done in 6 days. Here is our breakdown for Galapagos Islands.
Accommodation – USD 225 (7 nights)
Activities – USD 941 (includes 1 dive day, 2 full day tours and 2 half day tours)
Food – USD 133.50 (we mostly had breakfast & dinner at hostel while lunch was included with full day tours)
We heard about the charm of Cuenca from various travelers and we had to see it for ourselves. It took us a while to get there but we were eventually able to see what the travelers meant.
Cuenca is in the south of Ecuador in the mountainous Sierra region. At Quito, we were told that it takes 8 hours to get to Cuenca but it took 10 hours to get there mostly due to the mountainous roads and accidents. It cost around $10 to get there from Quito.
Cuenca City Center
Cuenca is famous for churches and has 52 churches. It is possible for Cuencans to visit a different church every Sunday of the year. The Cathedral of Cuenca was a stunning brickwork building which is 60 metres high.
While the inside was incredible, we took a tour for $3 around the Cathedral. Our first stop was the crypt underneath the Cathedral where many of the members of Catholic Church were buried. It was a sombre experience but certainly an unexpected one. We walked around the cathedral many times without noticing a catacomb style entry to the crypt.
Following on, We then climbed up 60 metres to see the view from the top and it was mesmerizing for sure. Many photos and selfies later, we had to descend down back to the street for more church visits.
Another church we really liked was the Disney-like San Alfonso Church. Its building was cream-coloured but the spires were blue. It stood out from a distance and we took some good shots of it.
The issue with Cuenca was that it was impossible to visit every church and remember the name. We took a few shots from the top level of our hostel while Shruti was working and there were 2 churches visible from the top. The shots were stunning but we couldn’t tell you what the names of the churches were. 2 out of 52 I guess!
Bus Tour of Cuenca
We have generally stayed away from bus tours in South America but Cuenca was an exception. The bus tour was cheap at $8 and the ticket was valid all day for the 2 bus tours (North & South). The bus initially went through the old city of Cuenca. Apart from the Churches, the building architecture was brilliant too. Cuenca had kept its old buildings with their white walls and coloured windows. The architecture was a bit more rustic than Quito but was still beautiful. There was a higher use of brickwork facades than anywhere in South America.
Moreover, the old city was built on a hill and a beautiful but fast river flowed below it. The new city was now developed on the other side of the river. There were plenty of parks and trees alongside the river and bridges build to cross it. We were beginning to think of it was the best looking city we had seen.
Once the bus reached the viewpoint of Turi, we were sure the city had a view as stunning as Medellin at the very least. There were mountains on all sides and the domes and spires of the churches were clearly visible along with the cute river in the middle. As we returned to the city, we went through a historic street where each pillar at the front of the house was wooden and each different to the other. Amazing!
During the bus tour, we noticed a ruin in Pumapungo area of the city. That was part of the Bank of Ecuador museum. The entry was free and the museum was several levels. The museum contained the monetary history of Ecuador’s independence to its current use of the US dollar as its currency.
The next level showed the various ethnic groups of Ecuador in each region. Other than the Sierra people, we found out about the Afro-Ecuadorians, the cowboys of the coastal farms and the Amazonian tribes. In particular, the information on the Shuar tribe of the Amazon was excellent. Moreover, we saw pottery from different regions of Ecuador all made in a different way. It was the best museum we had been to since Bogota.
Lastly, the inca ruins were included in the museum. The site of the museum was the city of Tomebamba. At the time the Spanish arrived, there was a civil war in the Inca Empire and the city didn’t put up much resistance. The ruins were mostly a pyramid of rock walls with a replica of the original buildings used for religious rituals. In addition, there was a large garden under the ruins where the museum grew many crops and also gave information about how many crops such as corn and chocolate was first harvested in South America. For a free museum, it was certainly the best we had seen on the trip.
The Amazon while providing a lot of stress-relief (travelers stress) also made us tired due to the continues activities. The last day of Cuenca we were meant to visit Cajas National Park but let it go for blogging and work on videos. We had bought a laptop in Cuenca and this was the perfect opportunity to set it up and get blog posts out.
Food and Drinks
While we mostly cooked at home, we did have a night of eating and drinking out. We found a restaurant offering a Thai and Vietnamese dish and ordered both. Both were incredibly spicy but we loved it as we have been missing hot food in South America. We also tried Canelazo, an alcohol made from sugarcane juice, which is served hot and is tasty.
While we have seen enough colonial buildings now in South America, it was the combination of the architecture, religious buildings and the surroundings that make Cuenca so charming. Likewise, though we were not able to visit it, our bus to Guayaquil went through Cajas National Park and it is an awesome place for day trips and camping.
Finally for the foodies, Cuenca is a great place as apart from the Cuencan cuisine, the retirees and the expats have brought many cuisines to Cuenca. A great visit for 3-4 days.
We had originally thought to visit Amazon in Ecuador but the plans changed when we added Brazil to our itinerary. After spending some time researching, we realised our original thoughts to visit Amazon in Ecuador would be the best thing to do. The two main reasons – cheaper and ecologically diverse and different. And so, we went ahead to shop for Amazon trip.
Shopping for Amazon Trip
While researching we also realised it was impossible to visit Amazon by yourself. We had to book a tour. So, we visited 3 tour agencies in Quito and received quotations between $290-$340 for similar 5 day itineraries. The price difference was usually due to the facilities within the lodges but the reviews consistently said that the quality of the guide would determine the success rate of the trip.
We read the reviews of the various lodges and decided on Guacamayo Lodge in the Cuyabano Reserve. It was comparatively cheaper and had great reviews. We paid $290 per person and $16.81 for a good torch for night walks, caiman spotting and walking around the lodge after 10pm.
Arriving in the Amazon
We took a bus from Quito for Lago Agrio for $12 per person. The bus ride was 7 hours and we slept most of the way on the night bus. There was an option of using a private bus from Mariscal area in Quito for $20 per person but we decided not take this as it was too expensive and we would have to wait in Mariscal till 11 pm.
The bus ride was comfortable except for the fact that the toilets in buses never work in Ecuador or are never open. Why have them in the first place? Also, it was our first experience seeing an Indian film on TV in the bus. Kites starring Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori was playing in Spanish. We had an early morning planned so we slept through it! We arrived at 6am sharp and left for the centre soon after.
Meeting the Guide
We had to get to Lago Agrio from Quito ourselves and were told that the lodge representative will meet us at Hotel D’mario. We arrived at the hotel at 7am for breakfast. After waiting for an hour, a uniformed guy approached us. Shruti spotted Guacamayo on his uniform and he introduced himself as Jairo. We were told we would wait till 9am for some others and eventually leave.
While waiting, Shruti spotted a stall making and selling a drink. We didn’t know what it was and were too shy to ask. Our guide also went up to have this drink and I decided to ask him. The drink wad made of Aloe Vera and Shruti and I both had one. Jairo joked that I should get some Amazonian herb put in as it would give me the libido for a great time in the jungle. We knew we had met a great guy!
Tripping to Amazon Reserve
The shuttle bus from Lago Agrio dropped us to the Cuyabeno bridge which was the starting point of our journey into the Amazon. Our luggage went in a motor boat while 8 of us went together in a different boat. On the boat we met our boatman for the trip, Fernando. He drove slow to give us a feel of the place. The river was brown and about 10-15 metres wide though it got narrower in places with fallen trees etc.
We saw our first wildlife within 10 minutes, a snake neck bird which dives in the water and pretends to be a snake when threatened. It was a beautiful bird and we were only getting started.
Jairo spotted something a few minutes later and it was a whole troop of squirrel monkeys. They were tiny things and were having a lunch of guaba fruit. They stay at the lowest end of the trees closer to the river and can sometimes become the lunch of anaconda’s and caiman’s. As we went along, we spotted flying monkeys, wooly monkeys and a lot of birds. The noise of wildlife was everywhere and we could feel that this was their home and we were the visitors. This was only day 1 OMG!
Our boat rider had seen an anaconda in the morning and decided to take us to the location to check if it was still there. After searching for about 5 mintues, Jairo spotted it on a low tree branch. It appeared to be fast asleep after a good meal from the previous night. Wow, this trip was just getting real!
Cuyabeno Reserve is about 600,000 hectares of protected Amazon Forest mostly on the River Cuyabeno. It contains the Igapo Eco System and is part of the headwaters of the Amazon river. The Cuyabeno River meets other rivers which eventually join the Amazon River. For 10 months of the year, the river is flooded and the width of the river can be in kilometers at certain points. This has led to the reserve having flora and fauna much different to the other parts of the Amazon.
You may think why we didn’t go to see the Amazon in Brazil? Well, we didn’t need to as the Amazon jungle is spread out over countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. Though Brazil has more of it, no country can claim to be the real Amazon as without the other countries, there wouldn’t be any Amazon!
Another plus about Cuyabeno Reserve was the Laguna Grande. This lake is formed by the rivers flowing and is a common path for boat transport. As such, there isn’t much vegetation around the center of the lake. Most evenings during sun down, Jairo would take us to the lake for swimming. Initially we thought he was just joking, but when he jumped in the water, we believed him. He convinced us that the caimans, anaconda, snakes and even piranhaes stick to the shallow water where there is enough vegetation. All we could hear was, we will be swimming with them! Definitely a story to tell.
Amazon is a mecca for birds. The mammals, i.e., jaguar, and big rodents like the capybara live deep inside the forest and is tough to spot them when the river is flooded. However, birds fly around by the hundreds every morning. This is also great for waking up in the morning to the most soothing natural sounds I have ever heard. What’s more amazing is that the Guacamayo Lodge has a 6 story bird watching tower. Every morning we would wake up between 6 and 7 to watch the birds flying past.
We regularly saw the macaws, tulcans, heron, woodpecker, arakara falcon, parrots, heron, oropendelo and many more. It was also mind blowing seeing Jairo and other guides in the lodge just tell us so many different birds sometimes without even using binoculars. Mind blasted!
Caiman Search at Night
This was by far the scariest thing we did in the Amazon. We had heard stories from Jairo about caiman attacking boats, people or taking limbs but as soon as the night fell upon the Amazon, Jairo would turn on his torch and started imitating caiman sounds around the shallow area of the lake. He managed to spot caiman’s eyes from distance away!
One time he spotted a young caiman. What did he decide to do? He leaned over the front of the boat, made caiman noises and eventually picked up the caiman right out of the water. We got some good shots but we were hoping he wouldn’t drop the caiman in the boat lest he tries to bite us.
Another time, we went looking for Caiman in an abandoned lodge. In the pitch black, an abandoned building and a bunch of tourists, it was a horror movie in the making. Finally, we saw a full grown caiman one night which another group was watching. Not to be left behind, Jairo made caiman sounds as we approached it. The caiman must have thought it was a friend and got closer to our boat! Its red eyes were scary and as it was fully grown, at least 3 meters long, it could easily kill a human being. Its nostrils were above water, as though it was ready to attack, and Jairo took this opportunity to wave his hand at him so he would jump. Errr, no thanks please! Un hombre loco – a crazy guy!
Walk in Jungle
One of the day’s itinerary was day trip to the jungle. We prepared by putting on a lots of insect repellent as well as wore rubber boots. Our journey on the boat had only started when Fernando our boatman spotted a sloth hanging on a tree. It was pretty clear viewing though the sloth was high up on the canopy and all we could see was a black blob! It was an incredible sight seeing another famous Amazon animal.
We entered the forest from the caiman’s territory right under the trees next to the water. Our first stop was the quinine tree. It is used to make the medicine for malaria saving millions of people all over the world. Jairo was as knowledgeable about the trees and shrubs in the jungle as he was about the animals and birds.
We saw a leaf whose sap oxidises when marked upon. This leaf could be used to write messages which would last a week. Similarly, we saw a variant of the rubber tree still used by the native community in the forest. We stopped every 5 minutes for Jairo to show us something incredible.
At one point, Jairo asked us to look for small red frog near some small trees. We couldn’t spot any though a member of the group thought he saw it – turns out it was a green frog. Eventually, Jairo returned with the small red frog on a leaf. It is one of the smallest creatures in the jungle, smaller than a human thumb, but had the capacity to kill a person in a few hours. An attractive cute beast – Red Ruby Poisonous Frog!
Another, interesting things were the vines and roots in the Amazon. Every tree is fighting for sunlight in a sea of trees. Therefore, vines rap around trees and try to reach for sunlight. In many cases, they get so strong that they kill the host tree. There were many fallen trees in the forest. To combat the struggle, some trees developed defense mechanism. There was a tree which covered itself in white coating to stop fungus from taking it over. While another plant called the devil’s tree killed everything around it making small clearings – a violent way to get more sunlight. Another type of tree literally walks towards sunlight! It moves about 10 cm per year in the direction of light.
Almost at the end of the walk, we had to cross a swamp. It was disgusting and tough pulling out our boots as they sunk in the mud. It was hard work but after 15 minutes we were clear and walked back to the water where Fernando was waiting for us.
Jungle Exploration at Night
We had another trip to the jungle at night looking for spiders and other creepy crawlies. We entered the jungle from the same location where we had in the morning. We hadn’t gone more than a few metres when Jairo began poking a dead tree trunk and out came a tarantula trying to attack the stick. It was one of the many scary moments that night.
A little while later, Jairo showed us a hybrid between a scorpion and a spider. It was not venomous and had very long legs. He asked for a volunteer from the group to have it put on their face and a German guy from the group agreed. It was a respite for us that it wasn’t us.
We saw a bird eating spider and an Amazonian lobster. It wasn’t related to the ocean lobster but looked a little similar.
At one point, Jairo asked us all to turn off our torches to feel the darkness. The darkness and the jungle noise was simply outstanding. It was so dark that I couldn’t even see Shruti who was less than an arm ahead. He even showed us a tree leaf which illuminates in the dark.
Before we left the jungle, we had a few more amazing things to see. A grasshopper had landed on a spider’s web and we all knew what was going to happen! It looked like a BBC or Discovery documentary. The grasshopper was hoping the spider would not notice it and played dead while 8 humans shined their light on it. Within seconds, the spider noticed the prey and had it wrapped up in web like lightning. Watch the video below for the footage!
As we walked forward, we heard some sounds from people ahead. It was a jungle rat, a rodent as big as a small pig. Shruti and I never saw it but it must have been a sight. We survived the jungle at night!
Interaction with the Native Community
Our Amazon trip involved interacting with the local Siona tribe who live in the Cuyabeno Reserve. We got on our boat early and Fernando drove the raft to the village. The community still lived traditionally though their outfits were modernised and sometimes their religion changed. As we got near the village, we realised that the houses were still the traditonal thatched roofs with fowls, dogs and kids running around. Jairo told us about the community, their customs and how things have changed for them.
Our main purpose of being there was working with the lady of the house to make a yuca bread for lunch. She was tiny, had 8 kids and was missing many teeth but she wasn’t soft and could use a machete like a butter knife. We went out to her garden where she could tell which flowering bud was a male or a female! She asked us to pull Yuca from the ground and it was my turn to do so. I squatted down and tried to pull it out like lifting a kettlebell. It took all my strength and some encouragement to pull it out clean from the ground.
Next, she used her machete to peel the yuca and wash them. Her kitchen had a earthen floor, some kitchen utensils made of wood or natural fibers and a corner for the open fire and stove. We helped grate the yuca which was tough and sticky like taro. After the grating, it was time to sift the grated yuca to remove any ungrated yuca or foreign objects.
The next step was to remove all the water from the yuca. For this, the lady had a traditional object made from natural fibers. It was like a manual juicer and she had to twist the fibres with yuca in it like twisting a towel. Finally, when all the juice was out, she started making the bread on metal plate with the fire. It reminded me of my grandmother.
We ate the bread with chancho (wild boar) and pescado (fish) and it was incredible. The bread was flat like roti but it’s texture was like millet bread. We thanked her for the food and gave her a few dollars which would hopefully go towards the well-being of her children.
Meeting a Shaman
Jairo knew lots of shamans in the reserve but took us to meet the best one. Olmedo was around his late thirties, wore a feather hat and a long green gown. After we were introduced to him, Jairo had a go at Olmedo’s blow gun and then each of us had a go at it as a healthy competition. The trick was to rap your mouth inside the blowing ring, aim and then blow out quite strongly. Shruti and I were so-so but one of the local ladies managed to get the feather aim on the ground.
We then had a Q & A session with the shaman. We asked him about his work, his accomplishments and also Ayahuasca. He could see our curiosity and gave us a sip to try. It tasted fowl at first but the aftertaste was good.
Following on, It was then the turn for the cleansing ritual. Jairo had brought a prickly branch from the Siona community for the shaman. First to go was Kirk, the shaman chanted some mantras in his language and rubbed Kirk’s naked back with a leafy branch and then the prickly branch. His back was full of little boils and we could tell he was hurting. At this point, I thought what the hell I am in the Amazon what better way to remember it by than a cleansing ceremony by a shaman. I had to take my shirt off and go through the same ritual. The prickly branch felt like a metal carpet brush being softly rubbed on my back. It was painful, I survived and I am not sure of any cleansing but I had a perfectly straight back for 2 days. We then said our goodbyes to Olmedo and headed back to the lodge.
Jairo promised us that he would fish for Piranha to show us the mighty fish. True to his word, he got some meat ready at the lodge pier to fish early in the morning. He tried for 15 minutes but to no avail. We all then got into the boat in our pajamas. Fernando steered the boat to the lake and then under trees for a second round.
After a few moments of wiggling the line, we had our piranha. To show us its sharp teeth, Jairo took a branch from the tree and waved it near the Piranha’s mouth. He took a bite and the rest of the branch fell off. Wow! It’s eyes were blood red and it was angry. We kept it out for 5-10 minutes but that was no problem as they can survive outside water for 25-30 minutes. Impressive!
While most of the group members left on 4th day, we had an extra day in the lodge. Jairo decided to take us canoeing to caiman lake which the local community is scared of as fishermen had been killed by the caimans or lost their limbs. An uplifting start! As the rest of the members left, we tagged along with our canoes tied to the boat and then split off closer to the lake. Shruti was in a canoe with Jairo and Christina while I was with Ben who could steer the canoe.
We spent the first 15 minutes going through a small narrow channel of the river. Ben and I weren’t the best yet and spent some time ducking and avoiding branches low trees. We then arrived at the infamous lake and saw little bats sleeping on the tree. Jairo knew the danger below us and we got out the lake as fast as we could. Eventually, I learnt the art of steering and sitting in the front, started alerting Ben when we had to steer away from branches. Definitely a good team!
As we were going back through another channel, Jairo noticed a troop of flying monkeys hanging on trees above. We spent some time just watching them. At one point, the monkeys started crossing the river using close tree branches. A baby with the troop was too scared to cross and his mummy came back and helped him cross. It was a real awwww moment – don’t forget to watch the footage in the video below. The rest of the journey was exciting but at the same time monotonous and hard. On one hand, we could literally feel the Amazon around us with its animals and noises but on the other hand, canoeing is hard work and we can’t imagine how it must have been like for the natives 50 years ago. A learning experience!
It is impossible to write how many animals we saw in the Amazon. There were some amazing animals like Pink Dolphin! One time we saw a mum and baby swimming together. Alas, no swimming with the dolphins but we still felt lucky.
The hoatzin was another amazing bird we saw regularly, it is meant to be related to dinosaurs and eats leaves. It’s name in Spanish translates to ‘stinky turkey’ as its stomach smells if you kill and try to eat it.
However, none of this would be possible without Jairo and Fernando who were absolutely amazing and knowledgeable at their jobs. They simply blew our mind and we will never forget this visit to Amazon.
As an epilogue, we were sitting at the Lago Agrio bus station waiting for a bus to Quito. It was hot, people were yelling all sorts of place names for buses and there was traffic noise. This is when it occurred to me what we had in the Amazon! The peace of the jungle with a flowing river, animal sounds and birds flying over despite the heat from the sun. Just peaceful and simple life – it is a must do for all!
Chimborazo Volcano is 6310 meters high, making it the highest volcano in Ecuador. In fact, it is the highest mountain in the world when measured from the center of the Earth. It beats Mt. Everest by 2 km. It is located close to the city of Riobamba. We had a weekend off from volunteering in Runtun, so we decided to head to south of Banos to do the Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo) train ride and Chimborazo.
Where to Stay?
As we did the Devil’s Nose train ride from Alausi on Saturday, we decided to head to Riobamba the same day. Spending the night in Riobamba also made getting to Banos on Sunday much easier.
There are options for staying around Chimborazo as well. Instead of crashing at Riobamba, you could also head to Guaranda. This town has welcomed tourists and backpackers and provides quite a few options for hostels and restaurants.
The other option is to stay at the Refuge Lodge on Chimborazo. The refuge is located at 4850 meters, making it a very interesting choice for a night or couple of nights. It is usually used as a base by people who plan to trek to the top of Chimborazo.
Journey to Chimborazo Parque from Riobamba
The evening we got to Riobamba, we checked for buses to Chimborazo. We were informed that we could take any bus from Terminal Terrestre that is going towards Guaranda. We found the Transporte Bolivar Bus Company that had daily buses to Guaranda. We boarded the 5:45am bus to ensure we get to the volcano early to avoid the clouds that roll in around midday. The ticket one way was USD 1.5 per person.
When we boarded the bus, we told the guy to drop us at Chimborazo Parque entry. Within 50 mins of the drive from Riobamba, the conductor on the bus waved at us to indicate our stop was coming up. We were dropped right outside the parque entry and once the bus drove away, we realised the view around us was something we had never seen before.
There was not a single tree around, just small bushes scarcely scattered and the soil was dark brown in colour. The mountains on the opposite side looked mystical. For a few minutes we thought we were on a different planet! One thing you need to know is the bus dropped us at 4350 meters, way above the tree line.
Hiking to First Refuge
We walked closer to the parque gate to realise opening hours were 8am to 5pm. We had arrived at 6:55am. We continued walking past the entrance when we heard a tap on the window. We turned to see an older man waving at us. We walked back to chat with him. Here is the conversation we had:
Guard – the park only opens at 8am.
Shruti – *makes a sad face*
Guard – where are you going?
Manish – up to the 2nd refuge.
Guard – returning back today?
Manish – yes, returning to Riobamba by noon.
Guard – ok go!
Yay!! That was easy!
The hike up from the door (4350 m) to the first refuge (4850 m) was on an unpaved road that winds up the mountain. It was 8 kms long and to walk it up, we would take 2 hours. We started walking along the road only to realise we were not the only ones around. Vicuñas, a less hairy version of llama, were just hanging around in the national park. They were as curious as we were. Soon we realised that there were plenty of them around. Some were running around, some eating and others calling out to each other.
After walking for about 1 hour 10 mins, we heard the first vehicle. We quickly stopped, turned and lifted our thumbs in the air. We were hoping to hitchhike the remaining distance up. Luckily the UTE (utility car) stopped and we jumped at the back. The remaining ride up was about 15 mins drive but the temperature and wind made it seem longer. By the time we got to the first refuge, our hands were near frozen!
We jumped off the car, said thank you to the boys and rushed inside the refuge. The temperature inside the building was warm and we loved it. Walking further in we realised backpackers who stayed there were enjoying their breakfast at that time. We ordered ourselves coca tea and sipped it for half an hour. Bliss!
Hiking to 5100 Meters
We paid the refuge care taker for our tea and asked him directions for the 2nd refuge and the laguna. We were told that the hike to 2nd refuge is 900 meters and will take about 45 minutes due to the altitude. We were ready to hike from 4850 m to 5050 m.
As we started our ascend, we realised there were grave stones around marking deaths of hikers. Slightly spooky but we continued walking up. Very soon we felt the affect of altitude. Our hearts were beating hard and we had to literally take baby steps. It was probably one of the most difficult hike we did. We stopped plenty of times in 40 mins to ease our hearts till we reached the 2nd refuge. Just then it started to drizzle.
We rested for about 15 mins outside the building under a shelter and ate our chocolates. It was cold and there was snow in various parts. We were so close to the glacier top! Then as the rain got a little strong, we decided to quickly hike to the laguna before heading back. The laguna is at 5100 m and the walk up took about 10 mins.
Due to the altitude, it was no longer rain pouring down. It was hail and sometimes even snow! At least we can check that off our list. It got really cold at the laguna and our fingers were starting to freeze. We did a quick walk around, took photos of the visible glacier before starting our descend down. Although we couldn’t see the Chimbarazo peak, just being at that altitude was an accomplishment!
It took us about 20-25 mins to hike down to the first refuge. The altitude does make a difference! But this time we had a different challenge. We had to protect ourselves from hail. It was heavy hailstorm and was smashing against our jackets. We covered our face and ran down where possible.
Upon reaching the refuge we decided to dry up a little before heading all the way down. Just at the entrance there was a crowd and Shruti quickly realised that the people were watching something. To our amusement, it was a wild Andean Fox just hanging around the refuge. This was definitely one of the best days of our travel.
After taking some pictures we headed back inside the refuge to enjoy another hot cup of coca. The time was about 11am and we were ready to head back. We watched people leaving and asked a couple of guys if they could drop us down to the park entry. After being declined twice, one couple agreed to drive us down. We jumped to the back of the car, held on to the edges and were ready for a wet drive down. Till about half way down we could still feel the hail falling on us and then it was just the rain. The ride down took about 20 mins and we were completely soaked by the end of it.
Back to Riobamba
The best thing about this region of Ecuador is the friendly people. We stood on the side road waiting for either a car or bus to pass. In about 15 mins, a car drove out from the parque and that was our chance to hitchhike again. The guy pulled over the car and waited for us to jump in! Though he wasn’t heading to Riobamba, he dropped us at a junction where we could easily get a bus to the city. Also, as it was raining he gave us a tarp to cover ourselves. What a guy!
What to Bring
It gets really cold from the first refuge on wards so make sure you bring warm clothes. In fact, beanie, gloves and scarf are highly recommended. Wearing comfortable hiking shoes will help make the walk up easy. Carry plenty of water and chocolate. The throat dries up quickly and you need something for instant energy. And do not forget your camera! Apart from the volcano and glaciers, there is plenty of wild life activity happening around. Just keep your camera ready!