Tag Archives: ecuador

Avenue of the Volcanoes

Quilotoa Volcano Crater Lake

After 19 months of continuous travel, I finally ran out of money. My last hurrah before moving to The Netherlands to get a ‘real’ job, was a four day flying visit to Quito.

Despite having spent quite some time in Ecuador, I have still seen so little of a country I truly love. My biggest regrets from my previous visit were not having been to Quilotoa Volcano Crater Lake or Cotopaxi Volcano, so these were my Must Do activities for this fleeting visit.

Quilotoa and Cotopaxi are both found in a region referred to as Avenue of the Volcanoes. There are over twenty active and extinct volcanoes in Ecuador. Of these  volcanoes there are approximately ten, including Quilotoa and Cotopaxi, which are considered to be major volcanoes.

Due to time restraints I chose to visit them both on day tours from Quito. I booked both tours through Community Hostel. Quilotoa costs USD$50 and Cotopaxi normally cost $55. As there were only three of us on the Cotopaxi tour, it was run as a private tour and cost $80 each.

Doing the two consecutive day tours I was lucky to get the same guide both days. Omar is a Quito local who has been climbing mountains and going on outdoor adventures since he could walk. He is extremely knowledgeable about the area, has a passion for adventure and has a good sense of humour; being on tour with him was a blast!

Quilotoa Volcano Crater Lake

Toachi River CanyonOn the way out to Quilotoa we made a brief stop at the small town of Pujili to check out the local market and grab some breakfast. Continuing on, the drive to Quilotoa through the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” was spectacular to see. In addition to the mountains, volcanos and canyons is the Toachi River Canyon, which may or may not be a fault line. It was a beautiful spot to snap a few photos.

Quilotoa used to be a full volcano, reaching a height of 5900metres. The story I heard regarding the origin of the name are that it is derived from the Indigenous Quechua/Kichwa terms Quilo and Toa. Quilo means teeth and Toa was the name of a regional princess. So I guess it is the Princess’ Teeth, or something along those lines.

The volcano itself collapsed approximately 800 years ago, whether it received the name Quilotoa before or after the collapse I am unsure, though to me it would seem more fitting after due to the jagged teeth of the remaining caldera.

At this point in time the crater walls are at an altitude of 3935 metres, and the lake within the crater walls is at 3521 metres, a variation of 414 metres for the eager hikers to hike down and climb back up. The rim of the crater has an 11 kilometre diameter, where the lake surface has a 3.5 kilometre diameter.  The water is roughly 150 metres deep at the deepest point, and is a super chilly 12 degree temperature. I believe swimming is not officially permitted but is regularly done, however if you want to get out into the lake then kayak rental is a recommended option.

Quilotoa Crater Lake with a native Andean Flower in the foregroundOn arrival at the crater, Omar gave everyone on the tour some suggestions for how to spend their time at the crater.  Based on my fitness and interests, he had a challenging suggestion for me. Together the two of us ran down the main path to the lakeside viewpoint, we took some photos before running along the lake’s edge for a stretch, before a very steep ascent (I admit, some of this was a piggy back ride for me!), we finished the loop by walking along the crater rim back to the starting point. (GPS record of my small Quilotoa Loop)

I really wish I had the time to hike the full crater loop and explore the nearby region, because it really is a beautiful part of the world. However, with my time constraints, I am simply grateful to have had the opportunity to see this stunning natural wonder with my own eyes.

Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi is an active volcano in the region, it closes regularly due to volcanic activity, but I was lucky to visit soon after it had been reopened.

Hiking Cotopaxi VolcanoAgain the name is said to be from the Quechua/Kichwa terms Coto and Paxi. Coto means neck and Paxi means moon. Once per year, at full moon, the moon appears to rest on the top of the volcano.

Cotopaxi is 5987 metres high, and is said to be one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. We drove to the car park at 4600 metres and then hiked to the refuge at 4864 meters. With a flu and hiking at altitude, I admit I moved very slowly (GPS Record of my ascent)!

The landscape was spectacular, walking through the dusty fine ash, seeing the haphazardly positioned volcanic rocks and the the snow-capped volcano peak.  Surprisingly the colours were quite vibrant, the grey and red of the volcano contrasted against the bright white snow and occasionally crystal blue sky.

I enjoyed quite some time sitting at the refuge, enjoying some Ecuadorian maracuya (passionfruit) flavoured chocolate, breathing in the mountain air and just soaking up the stunning surroundings.

Getting ready to cycle down the volcanoEventually it was time to go, I took a last look at the majestic Cotopaxi before running back down through the ash to the car.

We drove a short stretch, passing the worst parts of the rough road, before jumping on mountain bikes to cycle down to the lagoon. I enjoyed riding for a short while before I hit a soft patch of dirt and fell off my bike at low speed. I scratched up my hands and knees, but with my general flu, exhaustion and inclination to pass out any time there’s blood involved, I barely managed to get myself off the road before I passed out. Omar the ever gracious guide, managed to bundle me up into the car, patch my wounds and at my request, left me there to sleep for the drive home.

My two days of volcano visits were absolutely fantastic, and I look forward to seeing and hiking more some day!

Quilotoa & Cotopaxi

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Road Tripping from Quito to Bogota

I left cold Salasaka behind me and headed for the warmth of Columbia, a multi-day road trip with a few stops along the way. I started in Salasaka, Ecuador and finished in Bogota, Columbia, stopping in Ipiales, Popayan and Cali along the way.

Ipiales

Las Lajas SanctuarioIpiales is mostly a border town with not a whole lot to offer, except surprisingly an incredibly stunning sanctuary/church which straddles a gorge over the Guáitara River with high arches.

Las Lajas Sanctuario is church built based on the story of a woman and her deaf daughter who sought shelter in a storm, and a miracle occurred when the daughter saw an apparition and regained her hearing and voice. The first shrine was built in 1756, and since has been redeveloped and the church in its current form was built between 1916 and 1949.

I thought the stop in Ipiales was well worth it to see this stunning piece of archtecture nestled into the surrounding landscape. Visits are free, but the taxi ride costs approximately $3 each way.

Popayan

Popayan is listed in the Lonely Planet guide as a hidden gem that most tourists miss, so I decided not to miss it. With a late night arrival and a hotel booked in the bad part of town, my first response was to get out as soon as possible.

Cute church in PopayanHowever, after a night of rest I was determined to see what exactly Lonely Planet was on about. So off I went in a taxi to the historic part of town, and wasn’t disappointed.

The historic centre of Popayan is all whitewashed colonial style architecture reminiscent of the Spanish occupation. The avenues are wide, cobble stones and super cute to explore. If you happen to be passing through this town it a worth a stop to explore, just be sure to get a hotel/hostel in the historic part of town.

Cali

Cali Street ArtCali is a city known for Salsa, while I didn’t engage in any dancing I did however find the suburbs of San Antonio to be full of character and charm, not to mention absolutely fantastic street art.

Wandering after dark by yourself probably isn’t a brilliant idea, but exploring the streets by day is an absolutely brilliant idea. Wander, get lost, look at the walls around you and of course make stops in the gorgeous cafe’s for delicious coffee and tasty treats.

I stayed at Kingbird Hostel in San Antonio, which I would highly recommend for location, atmosphere and awesome staff.

Ecuador-Columbia Border Crossing

The border town on the Ecuadorian side is called Tulcan, and the border town on the Columbian side is called Ipiales. Neither town is exactly on the border, so you can catch buses to these towns and then a taxi to/from the actual border. Once you clear migration on one side, you walk across the bridge to the migration on the other side. It was probably the easiest border crossing I have ever completed.

Transport Summary

Bus: Salasaka to Quito (via Ambato) $4 4hrs
Bus: Quito to Tulcan $7 6.5hrs
Taxi: Ecuador border $3.50 10mins
Walk: across Ecuador-Columbia border $0 20mins incl. immigration
Taxi: Ipiales $8 (was ripped off majorly) 10mins
Bus: Ipiales to Popayan $11 8.5hrs
Bus: Popayan to Cali $5 3hrs
Flight: Cali to Bogota
* I decided I was prepared to spend more money to save myself yet another 10hr bus ride!
$ 45 1 hr
Total: $83.50 24hrs approx

Ipiales, Popayan And Cali

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Baños, the adventure capital of Ecuador

Baños is a small town four hours south of Quito by bus. The full name of the town is Baños de Agua Santa, which translates to Baths of Holy Water. The town got it’s name from the abundance of natural hot springs and waterfalls in the region.

The mountainous region developed into what is essentially the adventure capital of Ecuador. It is here that you can engage in all sorts of outdoor activities, such as the adrenaline pumping sports of Canyoning, Puenting, White Water Rafting, Mountain Biking through to more sedate activities such as swinging over a cliffs edge, hiking, visiting waterfalls and bathing the natural hot springs.

The number of activities you engage in obviously depends on time, budget and interests. During my time in the rural Ecuadorian town of Salasaca, I made two weekend trips to Baños.

In that time I only got around to completing a few of the activities on offer…

Hiking Chimborazo

Cost: Free

Hiking up ChimborazoMy first weekend adventure was spent together with eight other volunteers from the volunteer house in Salasaka. We headed to a volcano called Chimborazo, which claims to be the highest mountain in the world, 2 kilometres taller than Mount Everest when measure from the centre of the earth.

We caught the bus to a starting point at 4300 metres, signed in at the office and started walking upwards.

While we could see the volcano was snow-capped, the starting point was dry, dusty and to me, moon-like. There was very little vegetation and a few wild vicuñas on the lookout for food.

With the high elevation, walking was very slow going, but the company was fabulous and the views simply spectacular.

At 4800 metres we stopped for lunch and a hot drink, as we were all completely frozen and had burned all our energy with the uphill hike. After the brief respite, we continued onwards past the second refuge to the lake at top, Condor Cocha, our highest point of elevation at 5100 metres.

Puenting

Cost: $20 + $5 for the cd of photos and video

Puenting over Rio PastazaIn Spanish the word Puente means bridge, the activity referred to as Puenting is a pendulum bridge swing.

There are a few bridges in the Baños region where you can go puenting, I simply walked to the bridge over Rio Pastaza behind the bus station and local market. I spoke to the people running the operation on the bridge, paid and jumped off.

You can book and pay for a puenting experience at any of the Adventure Centres around town.

Casa Del Arbol

Cost: $1

Swinging off the edge of the worldCasa Del Arbol is a treehouse on top of the hill overlooking Baños, with some swing attached. Perched on the hilltop, it appears as though you swing off the edge of the world.

Swinging off the edge of the world was Bucket List Item 35 for me, and despite it not being a particularly high thrill activity, I loved every second of it!

You can either book a trip to Casa Del Arbol with one of the adventure companies or catch a local bus up and down. With a company it may cost around $12 or more, independently using public transport will add up to a total of $3. Buses are infrequent, so check the times carefully.

Pialon del Diabolo

Cost: $1

Pialon del DiaboloIdeally with enough time and good weather I would recommend renting a bicycle and cycling Ruta de Los Cascadas – the waterfall route. Alternately you can book a trip on a camioneta with any one of the adventure companies and they will transport you from place to place for approximately $6, not including entrance fees..

There are so many waterfalls in the area and they are all simply stunning and worth a visit.

Due to time limitations not to mention the incessant rain, I caught a local bus to Rio Verde for 50 cents each way, and walked the short distance to Pialon del Diabolo, the Devil’s Cauldron.

If you want to have a really good look at the waterfall and explore the area, then ideally you should wear a swimsuit and leave your electronics at home. Pialon del Diabolo is an incredible waterfall, with a huge volume of water. No matter how far away you are, you will be splashed as the water rushes down the mountainside.

Canyoning

Cost: $30

Canyoning Rio BlancoOn the recommendation of so many people I have met, Canyoning was added to my To Do list in Baños. Again, basically every company offers half and full day canyoning adventures.

Canyoning involves descending through a canyon, in the water, by means of rappelling, zip-lining, jumping and riding natural water slides. It is absolutely truck loads of fun!

A good friend of mine highly recommended the company Natural Magic for a canyoning trip, based on the professionalism and safety standards of the company. I was not disappointed at all!

My guide John was fantastic, there were no issues along the way, we all felt safe and had a brilliant adventure. We chose the half day canyoning adventure down Rio Blanco for $30.

My preference would have been the full day adventure down Cashaurco Canyon, but with temperatures of 2 -4 degrees celsius forecast, I was unwilling to spend quite so much time in the cold.

Food and Drink in Baños

It feels like there are literally hundreds of food and drink options in Baños. Some places I have been and like are:

Honey – good food coffee and cake
Hickory – delicious, good value, burgers
Pizza Al Pazo – reasonably good pizzas, well priced, quirky decor and friendly staff
Casa Hood – cosy atmosphere and a good range of cuisine at a reasonable price
Stray Dog Brewpub – some decent food such as burgers, also a nice (but expensive) range of beers
In one of the main food streets you will also find an opportunity to taste the local delicacy “Cuy”, known in the English language as Guinea Pig. A whole one costs $22, but assuming you just want to taste, a piece costs $3.

Chimborazo & Baños

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Volunteer teaching in rural Ecuador

For two and a half weeks in July 2016, I worked as a volunteer teacher during Summer School at a community school in rural Ecuador. Escuela Katitawa can be found in the small town of Salasaka, approximately three hours by bus from Quito.

Salasaca

Salasaca is a really tiny town. It has one main street and the other few streets are residential. There are a few small stores, an ice creamery, a bar and a very small souvenir market.The locals are incredibly friendly and welcoming.

If you ever need to grocery shop, get laundry done or complete any other similar chores, then the neighbouring town of Pelileo is the place to go (a 25c bus ride down the road).

Day-to-Day Volunteering at Escuela Katitawa

The Volunteers

The school and library are primarily staffed by overseas volunteers, of which I was one. During my time at Escuela Katitawa my fellow volunteers included some men from the U.S.A, Italy, France, two women from Great Britain, a couple from Italy and a couple from Belgium. For the last twelve years an older gentleman from the U.S.A. has run the school.

Volunteers hiking ChimborazoThe volunteers live together in a volunteer house and do everything together, eat, work, play games in free time. During the weekends there is nothing to do in Salasaka so the volunteers often go on a group adventure to nearby areas for hiking and other fun adventures. On one occasion nine of us hiked an inactive volcano, Chimborazo, to 5100 metres; before heading to the adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños to jump off the bridge in a bridge swing (puenting) and soak in the thermal pools.

The camaraderie amongst volunteers is what makes the experience worthwhile.

The School

English Class with 7-9 year oldsThe school is a 25 minute walk, or a five minute ride on the back of a truck, up the hill from the Volunteer House and Library. The walk can be a little daunting as the dogs from local properties tend to get defensive and bark at you as you walk by; some dogs also chase you. Typically they are all bluff.

The School has four main classrooms; one office for the Principal; two composting toilets; a yard to play in; an organic garden; and a kitchen and dining hall.

Each of the classrooms have some tables and chairs and a small whiteboard. Unfortunately though the school has no electricity and no heating, so both teachers and students are always rugged up in many layers of warm clothing.

Most, but not all doors lock, which means that overnight many items (including toilet paper) need to be relocated to prevent theft.

The Library

The Volunteer House and Library are two joined buildings that can be found by the roadside a few kilometers from central Salasaka.

Community members may purchase library membership for just a few dollars per year to have access to the books, or they may pay a few dollars per month for internet access.

In addition to functioning as a library, the library building is also used for private tuition lessons. It has two classrooms and one open space where the books and main desk are found.

The Volunteer House

The Volunteer House is both the level above the Library and the building beside it. Several years after construction began, it is still under construction.

Volunteer HouseThere is a communal kitchen, dining room, living room, wifi zone and bathroom. There are several dorm style bunkrooms. Most rooms have a small ensuite, though some lack doors, functioning sinks or toilets. None of the ensuites have a functioning shower. All volunteers share the bathroom above the library for access to the shower. The shower is the only place in the building where hot water can be found.

Several of the windows in the building lack glass, the living room window is a sheet of clear plastic and the kitchen has two holes where windows belong. There is no form of insulation or heating in the building, which once again means that all volunteers are permanently rugged up against the cold.

Laundry can be done either in a cold tub of water by hand, or it can be taken to the neighbouring town of Pelileo where rates are very reasonable.

In my second week we had no water for three days out of four, which creates major issues for cooking, bathing and going to the toilet.

If it weren’t for the amazing people I have worked with, I would not have stayed very long living in these rustic conditions.

It costs $7.50 per day to volunteer with Escuela Katitawa, or $20 per week. The money goes towards the running of the volunteer house (such as food for the volunteers, gas and electricity), school resources and construction materials.

The Daily Schedule

Transport to school7:00    Porridge breakfast is prepared for the volunteers
7:30    The truck departs for the school, if you miss it, you walk
8:00    The first lesson of the day begins
9:30    Students have a short break, during which time they can buy crisps from the kitchen and play in the yard
10:00  The second lesson of the day begins
11:00  Students have a short five minute break to run around, some students change classes at this point in time eg. The five year olds switch from Mathematics to English
12:00  Lessons finish for the day
12:30  Lunch is provided for the volunteers in the school dining hall. It is typically vegetable soup or rice with vegetables
1:00    Volunteers typically walk back to the volunteer house to hang out, or perhaps travel into Salasaka or Pelilieo to do groceries or laundry
4:00    From 4pm until 8pm, volunteers are assigned hour long private tuition sessions with students. Students range in age from 5 years old through to adults. They may study subjects such as English, French or Mathematics. I suspect tutoring would be provided in any subject requested
8:00    Around 8pm the student are provided with a delicious vegetarian meal prepared by Margarita

Summary of the experience

After a 12 month sabbatical from the classroom I was quite excited about this volunteer teaching opportunity. Overall I felt I was able to help the students a little bit, but generally I found the experience more frustrating and disappointing than anything else.

The living conditions were incredibly rustic and I couldn’t cope with being freezing the whole time, no matter how many layers of clothes I wore.

I really appreciated the opportunity to get to know some of the locals and feel welcomed into their community. I also really enjoyed getting to know and work with other volunteers.

Some aspects of the volunteering program were enjoyable, but if I were to volunteer elsewhere, I would certainly look for a placement that was more effectively organised, with better overall conditions.

It was certainly a memorable experience.

Volunteering At Escuela Katitawa

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The Galapagos Islands – JUST WOW!!!!!

The Galapagos Islands are ancient islands formed through volcanic activity, off the west coast of Ecuador. They were discovered by a man from Panama, named Tomás de Berlanga in 1535. The islands were claimed by Ecuador in 1832. In 1835 Charles Darwin visited the region in order to explore the islands and research the geology, botany and zoology, in order to find evidence supporting his theory of evolution. Despite Darwin having not spent a great deal of time on the islands, his name has since been tightly coupled with any references to the Galapagos.

The Galapagos Islands are particularly special because there is an incredible biodiversity, and they have been well protected from human influence and damage. It is on the islands that you can see a wide variety of land and sea creatures that are not seen elsewhere in the world.

Despite being a volcanic region, there are currently only two islands with active volcanoes: Isabella and Fernandina. Unsurprisingly, we did not visit either of these two islands.

Galapagos Islands Tour

Group photo of family and friendsIn July 2016 I ticked off bucket list item number 2, which was to take my mum to see the Galapagos Islands, something that was a life long dream for her. For ten days we toured together with family, friends and strangers on the Intrepid Travel Tour: Complete Galapagos (Daphne). The tour was all on a boat called the Daphne and our guide Wilo had recently been awarded “Best Guide in South America” by Intrepid. The crew were brilliant: Luis was a great Captain who got us everywhere safely; Benny and Herman took us everywhere in the zodiacs; Luis was a fantastic barman/waiter; Eric and Segundo prepared delicious meals for us daily; and Carlos kept the boats running.

There are a few reasons why I regularly tour with Intrepid, one of which is their commitment to supporting the community. Their stand on community support is in the case of the Galapagos backed up by legal requirements. Anyone who works as a guide or in any other capacity in the Galapagos Islands MUST be a resident of the Galapagos. This ensures the economic support of the islands, by providing income and jobs. It also means that you  typically encounter people that have a vast amount of knowledge and passion for their home.

When to visit

I am sure the Galapagos Islands are amazing to visit at any time of the year. Despite the cold currents and high winds, July was a great time to visit as we were able to see many of the birds nesting. In some cases, July is the only time of year when certain birds are seen on land. For the bird lovers in my group, this was a dream come true.

Isla Baltra

As the plane descended to land on Isla Baltra I can say I have never experienced such an intense buzz of anticipation emanating from all the passengers in the plane. We were all so curious to see what awaited us!

Baltra is an arid island, and for us, was only the point of arrival and departure. Within an hour of landing we headed across to Isla Santa Cruz by ferry.

Isla Santa Cruz

Giant Land TortoiseSanta Cruz is one of the few inhabited islands, with a population of approximately 23,000 people.

The main visit on Isla Santa Cruz was to a private farm where Giant Tortoises can be found after wandering into the highlands from the National Park. The land has been cleared, making it easy for the tortoises to find a greater variety and quantity of food.

The tortoises typically eat large quantities in the cold season, then travel to the lowlands to lay eggs.

A large old male can weigh up to 250kilograms. Tortoises never stop growing, though over time their growth rate simply slows down.

To see Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz is the best island to visit.

Floreana

Floreana is another inhabited island, with a population of just 120. We visited an uninhabited portion of the island.

Group Photo at Post office BayOur first stop was to Post Office Bay.  Post Office Bay has a large barrel containing mail (letters and postcards), traditionally sailors would stop by here to collect the post to deliver mail to other islands they were heading to. Now tourists leave postcards there, so that other tourists may hand deliver them if the destination is near their home. It’s a really fun idea!

From there we walked to a lava tunnel where we did a short exploration in the dark and even swam to the end. The idea of hiking and swimming in a lava tunnel is so cool! But realistically, the one we visited was just like many caves I have visited.

Back on the beach, we went for our first snorkel in the Galapagos. We had the brilliant fortune of being able to see a large number of Sea Turtles in a range of sizes. We also saw some stingrays and fish.

The Sea Turtles were however, the highlight for me. They are such beautiful creatures, moving so gracefully through the water. I was also very impressed that they did not pay much attention to us and happily went about their business of eating, breathing and swimming as we watched in awe.

Devil’s Crown

Just off the coast of Floreana Island is a volcanic crater with a coral reef in the centre referred to as Devil’s Crown, and one of the best snorkelling sites in the Galapagos.

Dropping into the chilly water was rewarded with fantastic visibility and an abundance of sea life. We saw a huge variety of fish, not to mention a shark, eagle ray and marble ray.

Punta Cormorant

Sally Lightfoot CrabWe finished our visit to Floreana with an afternoon walk across the island from one side to the other at a place referred to as Punta Cormorant.

Through the centre we were able to observe flamingos eating in the lagoon.

Across the island was a beautiful beach where we were able to observe the brightly coloured sally lightfoot crabs scampering over the rocks. We also watched the pelicans and blue footed boobies diving into the water to feed off fish.

Espanola

Española was the first uninhabited island we visited. An island where we made two stops.

Punta Suarez

Punta Suarez was our landing point on the island for a nature stroll. Instantly upon landing we were surprised to see hundreds of Marine Iguanas chilling out, soaking up the sun on the black rocks and warm sand. The Marine Iguanas eat red and green algae that grows on the rocks under the water, through their diet their skin has acquired a red colour and sometimes you can also see the green colour.

Marine Iguana

The Iguanas on Española are so abundant, it makes it challenging to walk, as every few steps you almost tread on one who has blended into the environment so well and is laying to perfectly still.

In addition to the Igaunas, we saw Lava Lizards, Frigate Birds, Nazca (Masked) Boobies and Albatross’.

The Nazca Boobie, was previously known as the Masked Boobie. In 2001 the name was changed to Nazca Boobie after the name of the tectonic plate on which the Galapagos Islands can be found.

Gardner Bay

We spent a lazy afternoon soaking up the sunshine and hanging out with the Sea Lions and Pelicans on the beach of Gardners Bay.

On the way back to the boat, Wilo, Andrea and I took one last dive to check out a sleeping Galapagos Shark on the reef.

As the sun began to drop and we motored our way to the next island, we were incredibly lucky to get an escort. A pod of bottlenose dolphins, jumped, swam and spiralled in the bow wave of the boat for about 15 minutes as we shrieked in delight.

San Cristobal

Mid way through our tour we made a visit to the inhabited island of San Cristobal. The population of San Cristobal is around 8000.

It was here that we said goodbye to some of our tour buddies and said hello to some new ones.

Kicker Rock

Kicker RockPrior to arriving at San Cristobal we had a 6am snorkel at Kicker Rock. Kicker Rock looks like an island with a hill, but to one side it appears to have split. It was through this split in the rocks that we snorkelled in search of sharks.

Everyone was an incredibly good sport about getting into the icy waters at 6am. Unfortunately our early morning diligence was not rewarded with good visibility. Close to the rocks you could see some nice coral, fish and algae. But through the center of the chasm all you could see was blue. At one stage through this blue a galapagos shark was spotted heading straight for my aunt and I. Hearing our tiny shrieks of surprise, the shark disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Island Adventures

On land, we said our goodbyes and gave hugs, before enjoying a spot of souvenir shopping as well as coffee and wifi connections.

Having recruited our new tour members, we enjoyed a brief land excursion starting with a visit to the Interpretation Centre.

The Interpretation Centre provided some geological facts about the islands and their formation. It also covered the history of the islands, and other information regarding its inhabitants, lifestyle, geology, botany and zoology. We continued through the visitor centre up to the viewpoint and statue of Charles Darwin, which was great for some photos.

From downtown San Cristobal we headed into the highlands to see another farm for Giant Tortoises, so that our new tour buddies would have an opportunity to see them.

We finished the day with a visit to Lake Junco which is at the peak of the island. This gave us a great panoramic view of the island as a whole, as well as the crater lakes nearby.

Isla Santa Fe

Yellow Land IguanaExploring the uninhabited island of Santa Fe was indeed a treat as it was the first chance we had to see the Yellow Land Iguanas. Much like the Marine Iguanas, these guys were super chilled out, and only occasionally opened their eyes to check where you were in relation to them. I was impressed too, by the bright yellow in their skin, perhaps coming from their diet of Prickly Pear Cactus.

During our walk we also saw Sea Lions, and a variety of different birds.

Snorkelling

With our new tour buddies we dropped into the ocean once more. At this site we again saw a huge variety of sea life. The notable fish I saw included a Scorpion Fish, Mexican Hawkfish, Blue-Eyed Damselfish and Cornet Fish. We also got the opportunity to swim with playful Sea Lions and a lethargic (thankfully) White Tipped Reef Shark.

Plaza Sur

Blue Footed BoobieThe Plazas Islands are a pair of Islands: Plaza Sur and Plaza Norte.

Plaza Norte is heavily protected and no one is allowed to visit. Plaza Sur is however a great spot to go for a walk along the island trails to see both Land and Marine Iguanas, Sea Lions, Tropical Birds, Swallow Tailed Gulls, Red Billed Tropic Birds and Blue Footed Boobies.

Genovesa

Genovesa is another uninhabited island where we took some opportunities to snorkel and walk.

Snorkelling

This was the place I was most excited about as it provided the opportunity to swim with Hammerhead Sharks! Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t fantastic and I got only the tiniest snippet of video footage and no photographs before my GoPro went flat, but I was lucky enough to see five or six of these majestic, not to mention HUGE creatures! I was bouncing off the walls with excitement!

The other highlight of snorkelling here was to see a huge school a Manta Ray swimming directly below me. It was amazing to see them swimming as such a tight cluster.

In addition to the Hammerheads and Mantas, we saw a large range of fish species including Parrot Fish and Angelfish.

Walking

Red Footed BoobieWe made two land trips, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In the morning we landed on the beach and wandered along the rocks to see Red Footed Boobies, Frigate Birds, Swallow Tailed Gulls and Nazca Boobies.

Our afternoon walk started with a steep ascent up the Prince Phillip Steps. Named after the prince who stumbled down them in 1972. Up on the clifftops we found the nesting grounds for a variety of the bird species’.  We saw the Swallow Tailed Gulls, Red Footed and Nazca Boobies with their chicks.

Short Eared OwlWe were also incredibly lucky to spot the Short Eared Owl (seven of them in fact, when spotting even just one is a rarity). The Short-Eared Owls are quite evil creatures, to hunt they don’t swoop down on their prey. Rather they hide in the burrows of their prey, awaiting their arrival before attacking them as they enter their home. It seems rather evil to me, but clearly it is effective as the birds haven’t starved into extinction.

Santiago Island

Sullivans Bay on Santiago Island was the place that I considered most fascinating in terms of the landscape. The entire landscape that we explored was 140 year old, cooled black lava.

Cooled Lava Flows on Santiago Island

What I found so fascinating were the patterns in the lava, the lava flow visibly change direction at some points. Some sections had tight ripples, other loose ripples and other sections were flat and smooth.

Over time, the layers of lava have occasionally split and cracked, enabling you to see the layers in the dried lava, with it’s various degrees of density and colour. Unsurprisingly, there was no animal life to be found here.

An afternoon snorkel around the islands’ coast was also fascinating, seeing the rippled lava under the water. It was here that we saw a beautiful juvenile turtle enjoying lunch, a variety of fish and for the first and last time, a Tiger Eel.

Bainbridge Rocks

Bainbridge RocksIn our travels from one island to the next, we passed by Bainbridge Rocks. A volcanic crater with a lagoon in the middle. The lagoon is often home to flamingoes, but on this occasion we weren’t lucky enough to see any.

Despite missing the flamingoes, I personally found the island/crater to be simply stunning and was not in the least bit disappointed at the lack of flamingoes!

Rabida Island

Our visit to the uninhabited Rabida Island was our last island visit. We enjoyed a walk and a snorkel.

Walking around Rabida

On first seeing Rabida Island, I feel we were all surprised at how red it was. The earth was a deep ochre colour everywhere you looked. The red looked magnificent set against the silver coloured, bare, incense trees and the lush green prickly pear cactus’.

Snorkelling along Rabida’s Coast

Rabida IslandOur last snorkelling trip of the Galapagos Adventure was around the coastline of Rabida from one bay to another. As usual we saw a large variety of fish, some Sea Turtles and Starfish.

We were also on the lookout for more sharks, at least I was. I was not disappointed, and in fact was a little put out by the large number of sharks we came across. To start with I enjoyed swimming a few metres above a large a wonderfully graceful Galapagos shark. Soon he crossed paths with two others. As I continued on, another two were not simply swimming along the bottom, but headed upwards towards me. While I am sure we would not have been snorkelling if these sharks posed a threat, having a two metre shark swimming in your direction is not a comforting feeling.

I continued on and soon the number of sharks increased to about seven, mostly staying low in the water, until one swam past me at chest height, in the two metre gap between me and the rocks. This was incredibly exciting, but at the same time, I felt I had had my fill of sharks for the day and I climbed aboard one the zodiacs to get a birds eye view of the shark ‘infested’ waters while soaking up some warmth from the sun.

Santa Cruz

We finished our tour back where we started, on the Island of Santa Cruz. Before packing and disembarking, we had one last boat trip on the zodiacs into Black Turtle Cove.

It was a very relaxing way to start the day, so serene between the mangroves, with the serenity of sunrise and the perfectly still water.

Looking through the waters surface amongst the red and black mangroves we managed to see baby Black Tip Sharks, Eagle Ray, baby Puffer Fish and Sea Turtles.

It was with this last picture in our minds that we packed up, hugged the crew and headed back to civilization.

What an amazing adventure, the words simply don’t describe how awesome this experience was!!

Galapagos Islands

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Papallacta pools

Yet another day trip from Quito organised by the fabulous Ruben from Southern Paradise Tours, and on this occasion Ruben was free himself to take us out to Papallacta Thermal Pools.

The tour on this occasion cost $45 per person for five people, excluding lunch and the pools entry fee of $8.50.

Papallacta Thermal PoolsThe drive from Quito to Papallacta took around two hours, with the highest point a pass at 4100 metres. The variation in landscape at the changing altitudes was gorgeous! Also we all had our eyes glued to the road and roadside bushes in the hope of seeing a spectacled bear, but we were sadly disappointed.

The thermal hot springs are at an altitude of 3250 metres, they are set in the mountains with a river running by.  The pools water is said to be good for: “respiratory, digestive, renal and skin conditions; bones and articulation pain;  improves circulation blood and removing toxins; stress, insomnia and anxiety; and relax muscles and relieve tensions.”

The day we visited was ridiculously cold, so we headed straight for the hottest pool and didn’t move for at least an hour, when we were well cooked.

It was so calming to sit in the pools, soak up all the natural minerals into our tired and sore bodies, watch the steam rise from the pools and look into the skies at the mountain pics searching for condors.

After the exhaustion of continuous travel, the time out in the hot pool was just what I needed!

Papallacta Thermal Pools

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Day Tripping to Otavalo ..without the nasty dogs

Once again Ruben from Southern Paradise Tours came through for my family and friends by lining up a day trip to Otavalo. Jose Luis was once again our guide for the day. Setting off at 8am, we headed north.

For a group of five we paid $50 each, not including lunch or entrance to the Condor Park.

Viewpoint of San Pablo Lake

Cute puppy at the San Pablo MiradorOur first stop as we neared Otavalo was a viewpoint over the San Pablo lake, one of the more well known lakes in the area. The view was lovely, but honestly I was mostly distracted by the super cute puppy dog.

We enjoyed a cup of coffee, some Biscocho with dulce de leche and some Queso de Hoja. The Biscocho and Queso de Hoja are traditional treats in the area.

Condor Park

Cost: $4.75

Andean Condors at the Condor ParkFor the birds lovers in our group we visited to Condor Park on the hill overlooking Otavalo. The park was established and is still run by a Dutch owner, but the majority of staff are local Otavaleñans.

Walking around the park we got to see all sorts of varieties of owls, eagles, hawks and of course the Andean Condor.

Conquering fears by holding an American KestrelThe park has a show which runs daily at 11:30am and 3:30pm, but the shows are in Spanish. Without understanding what was said, it was great to see the birds freed from their cages and confinements to get a chance to fly free for a few moments.

For a bet, I took the opportunity during the show to hold an American Kestrel. Despite it only being a small bird, I was still incredibly apprehensive, but I have photographic evidence that I did it!

El Lechero

Healing Dog Bite WoundSince we were already in the neighbourhood and in a car, I asked Jose Luis if we could stop by El Lechero, so I could finally see the Sacred Tree that TripAdvisor lists as one of the things to do in the area.

As you may recall, my last attempt to visit El Lechero ended badly with a hospital visit following a dog attack. The wound is healing very well in case you were wondering.

El LecheroSo we arrived at El Lechero and the first thing I saw was dogs. Nervously I picked up a rock to put in my pocket, just in case threats would be required. I walked nervously and close to my friend Andrea as I walked up to the tree. The dogs turned out to be super relaxed and didn’t even glance in my direction, and the sacred tree ended up being quite beautiful.

The tree stands as a solitary tree atop a hill overlooking Otavalo and surrounds. It probably wouldn’t rank as a ‘must see’ for Otavalo, but it was beautiful and I am glad to have finally seen it.

Otavalo Indigenous Market

Alpaca Wool BlanketThe Otavalo Indigenous market was, as per usual, the highlight of a trip to Otavalo. The locals are so friendly, though they do harass you a little bit to buy their products. The colours and textures are absolutely fabulous.

Even though I am a budget traveller, I caved and bought the most wonderfully soft, beautifully coloured alpaca wool blanket. It will cover a queen size bed, and I managed to negotiate the price down to $21. Also a huge thank you to my mum, for taking it back to Australia for me in her luggage! (I don’t want to carry it around for the next however many months I keep travelling)

Cuichocha Lake

Lago Cuicocha, Cotocachi Nacional ParqueBy the time we traveled from Otavalo, through Cotocachi up to Lake Cuicocha it was quite late in the day and very cold. This resulted in a very brief visit.

Cuicocha is a 3000 year old caldera of a volcano, the neighbouring
hills were created by the ash of a volcanic eruption 1500 years ago. The caldera is approximately 1.5 kilometres in diameter and the water in the caldera is 140 metres deep.

One day if I return to Cuicocha, I would like to hike around the lake. I have been advised it takes around 5 hours and is beautiful.

Otavalo Day Trip

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Hummingbirds in the Mindo Loma Cloud Forest

While Quito is a beautiful city with much to offer, it’s also fantastic to go beyond walking distance and see the surrounding areas. When riding the TeleferiQo I met a lovely guide called Ruben who has his own tour company, Southern Paradise Tours. After some messaging via Whatsapp Ruben organised a private tour for my friends and family to visit the Mindo Cloud Forest, with his colleague Jose Luis.

For a group of seven people we paid $40 per person, excluding lunch and entrance fees to Nathaly and El Quetzal.

Mindo Loma

HummingbirdThe Mindo Cloud Forest is at an altitude of around 1800 metres and has lush rainforest (or rather cloud forest) vegetation, which is a haven for birds of many varieties including the Hummingbird.

The variation of environment in Ecuador is home to approximately 1700 species of birds. In the world there are 320 species of Hummingbird, 138 of which can be found in Ecuador. The Hummingbird is one of the worlds smallest birds, the smallest of which is 5cm, weighing just 2.5grams. The Hummingbird has fewer than 100 feathers, and their wings flap approximately 80 times per second. As they fly, their wings flap so quickly you can see the body of the bird but not the wings.

Hummingbird Feeding at Mindo Loma Cloud ForestWe spent several hours at the Mindo Loma Bird Lodge to quietly watch the hummingbirds feeding. We saw various species of Hummingbirds, as well as some Tanagers.

While people can tell you the hummingbird moves quickly, it’s still surprising to see it (or most of the time miss it) with your own eyes.

Nathaly Butterfly & Orchid House

Mum amongst the orchids at NathalyOur second stop of the tour was to visit a butterfly and orchid house in the town of Mindo, called Nathaly.

Nathaly houses several varieties of Orchids. Like with birds, Ecuadors climate is conducive to the growth of many varieties of orchids. There are approximately 15,000 identified varieties of orchids in the world, of which Ecuador grows 5,000.

A butterfly at NathalyAmongst the orchids Nathaly offers the opportunity to learn about and see the various stages in the life cycle of a butterfly, including the eggs, larva, chrysalis and adult. In the butterfly house were several species of butterfly, though I can’t recall any of the names.

El Quetzal Chocolate Factory

Chocolate tasting at El QuetzalThe last stop of the day was the El Quetzal Chocolate Factory. The cacao beans are not grown in Mindo as the climate is too cold, however the remainder of the chocolate making process is done on site. All the ingredients are organic and grown on a family farm.

At the chocolate factory the chocolate making process is all hand done and using purpose built machines. It is interesting to see the processes undergone by the cacao bean through to chocolate bars and the home made machines to assist in this process.

All chocolates made contain only cacao, varying amounts of sugar and occasionally organic flavourings such as chilli or ginger. The chocolate tasting reinforced my love of the sweeter chocolates as opposed to the chocolate with a high percentage of cacao. The 100% chocolate resulted in a screwed up nose, while the 67% had me coming back for more!

Mindo Cloud Forest

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Exploring Ecuador: Quito

Ecuador Sign with my family and friendsAt an elevation of 2850 metres Quito, Ecuador is the one of the world’s highest cities. The city is in a valley between the mountains, it’s only 6 kilometres wide and 40 kilometres long, so exploring the city can involve large amount of walking up and down. Arriving in Quito may have you feeling light headed and short of breath, but just remember to take it slow, drink lots of water and allow yourself to acclimatise to the altitude.

The city of Quito gained its name as an adaptation of the local Quitu people. It was a major Inca city, until the Spanish arrived and conquered it in 1534. The city was built up by the Spaniards from the 17th century, and it is many of these buildings which remain in the Old Town of Quito. The old town is UNESCO World Heritage listed and is the most well preserved old town in the Americas.

Quito today is a bustling city with a population of 2.6 million. Its primary export is oil, which unfortunately can be linked to the crash of the Ecuadorian currency and other problems. Other main exports include flowers, bananas, cacao beans and tuna.

Quito is a safe and pleasant city to explore on foot, albeit at a much slower pace than normal due to the altitude. There were a number of things I did around town including a free walking tour; Middle of the World tour; I visited the Basilica; Plaza Grande, the Cathedral; the Jesuit church, Iglesia de Compañia de Jesus; Monastery of San Francisco; Iglesia de Santo Domingo, La Ronda and also; the Teleferiqo.

Some places that were recommended as good to see, that I didn’t get around to seeing include: El Pancillo and El Capilla del Hombre/Guayasamin Museum.

Free Walking Tour run by Community Hostel

When: 10:30am daily (except Sunday)
Cost: Free, but tips are welcome

Fresh juice at the central marketOur tour guide Andrea from Community Hostel, provided us with a fantastic tour of her town. She is a Quiteñan and is very proud of her city. We started the tour at Community Hostel and made our first stop at the Central Market, where we learned about the local foods.

Firstly, Ecuadorians love sugar! They will take any opportunity to put sugar on or in something, such as the delicious Jugo de Mora (Blackberry juice, sweetened with of course, sugar).

Andrea also advised us that Ecuadorians have discovered the cure for a hangover; Encebollada is some form of fish and onion broth that you see advertised all over the place.

After sampling some of the local fresh juice, we continued our tour into the old town where we heard some of the history of Quito and Ecuador and Andrea pointed out the significant buildings around town, as well as showing us some of the best views within the city.

Middle of the World Tour run by Community Hostel

When: 2:30pm daily (except Sunday) from the Community Hostel
Cost: $10 plus museum entrance fees. Intiñan Museum $4 and I did not pay to enter the ‘fake’ equator line.

On the equator line at the Intiñan MuseumIn the days of the Spaniards, the equator line was identified running through the north of Quito, a monument and small city were built for tourists to come and visit. Some years later, using the new technology of GPS, the real equator line was discovered 200-300 metres away from the Mitad del Mundo museum, here the Intiñan Museum was built.

In a guided tour of the Intiñan Museum you are taught a small amount about some of the local people of Ecuador such as the Shuar Tribe who were the tribe of people known for shrinking heads to keep as trophies or allow their revered elders to live on. We also were able to perform small experiments on the equator line such as seeing water swirl different directions in the two different hemispheres, and balancing a raw egg on the head of a nail. I really enjoyed my visit to this small museum and the little experiments were fascinating and fun!

Basílica Voto de Nacional

Cost: $2 to climb the towers and $2 to visit the church.

View of Quito from the Basilica TowerThe Basilica Voto de Nacional is the largest neo-gothic church in the Americas. It is visually comparable to the Notre Dame in Paris, except the gargoyles on the sides of the church’s exterior are native animals of Ecuador. The church interior is beautiful and the main nave is lined with stained glass windows. My favourite part of the basilica was not the church interior, rather the towers. Climbing the main tower and bell tower of the Basilica was one of my most enjoyable experiences in Quito. I had the chance to walk rickety timber boardwalks and exposed steel ladders to pop out at the top of these towers to gain a magnificent view of the city.

Plaza Grande

Cost: Free

La Plaza GrandePlaza Grande is essentially the central point of the old town. It is a large green plaza, with a sculpture of independence in the centre. It is clearly the place where locals come and hang out to enjoy the sunshine, relax and read the paper or try to sell their goods. The plaza is flanked by beautiful old buildings on three sides: the Archbishops palace which has been converted into shops and restaurants, the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral. The fourth side of the plaza houses the tourism office in a modern building that doesn’t suit the old town at all.

Having a coffee at one of the traditional old cafes under the Cathedral or sitting on one of the park benches enjoying a freshly made juice is a great way to spend the time and people watch as the locals go about their business.

La Catedral

Cost: $2

The Cathedral is the main church on Plaza Grande at the center of the Old Town. It was quite a lovely church, but in my opinion, many other churches in the area are more spectacular.

Iglesia de Compañia de Jesus

Cost: $5, or free on the first Sunday of every month. There is an additional cost to climb to the cupola (the cupola closes before the church and I didn’t have the chance to do this)

The Iglesia de Compañia de Jesus is the most elaborately detailed church I have seen. The rich Jesuits built the church over a period of 160 years. The elaborate and intricate designs are both external and internal. The value of the internal design is however much higher, with a huge number of surfaces being covered in gold leaf. Most of the interior glitters with gold.

Monastery of San Francisco

Cost: $2

Monastery of San FranciscoThe long white building of the Monastery of San Francisco is a place to visit if you enjoy religious art and churches. It is the largest colonial structure in the city and took 70 years to build. Your entry free provides access to a small museum or gallery, a lovely internal garden courtyard and the church. The church is rather spectacular to see, with bright colours, elaborate paintings and highly detailed timber work. Unless you are particularly religious, it is probably not a place that would be high on my list of recommended places to visit. The plaza in front of the Monastery is busy with the construction of a new metro system, but still is a great place to buy from local artisans wandering through or stop and enjoy a coffee.

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Cost: Free
Santo Domingo ChurchOn the Plaza Santo Domingo is the Church of Santo Domingo. It is a beautiful church with fascinating bright blue patterned paintwork. The plaza is a pleasant place to wander through, where local food sellers occasionally set up stalls. It’s a little out of the main hub of the old town, but to me the lack of tourists buzzing around made my visit that little bit more pleasant and culturally rich.

La Ronda

Cost: Free

Calle La RondaCalle La Ronda is the oldest street in Quito. The street houses several artisan shops for chocolate, coffee, honey, metal work, timber work etc. After the sun sets is when the street really comes to life with busy restaurants and bars. The thing to do is stop in for a giant cheese empanada and the traditional drink, Canelazo while listening to live music.

TeleferiQo

Cost: $8

View of Quito from the TeleferiQoGetting a taxi or bus out to the TeleferiQo is a fabulous idea. You ride the cable car up to a height of 4100metres and are afforded stunning views over the whole city of Quito. It is from here that you are able to appreciate just how mountainous the town is, despite it being in a valley. From the arrival station you can continue up by hiking or riding a horse to the upper station at 4800metres. With friends and family, we decided the lower station was enough for us.

Artisan Market

Cost: Free

In the newer suburb of Mariscal is an artisan market with handicrafts made by local Quiteñans and Otavaleñans. If you don’t have the time to visit the markets in Otavalo, then this market is a fantastic alternative option.

Centre for Contemporary Arts

Cost: Free

Art at the entrance to the Contemporary Arts MuseumI’m not particularly into art or museums, but my dorm buddy in Quito was, so I figured I would tag along. I was glad I did.

The Contemporary Arts Museum is free to enter. It is located in a position on the hill which has a good view of the city and on the way there I walked past loads of street art, which I enjoyed photographing.

The arts museum was housed in a fascinating building which was a combination of old and new design styles. The few art installations insides the museum were also quite fascinating, though for me the building itself was the highlight.

Bucketpass

The bucketpass is a pass where you pay a set price and get access to a certain number of attractions/visits and it works out to be slightly cheaper than all the separate ticket prices.

I only learned of the bucketpass after having explored Quito. There are numerous things covered by the pass that I did not see. However based on your interests, it may be worth looking into.

There is also a bucketpass for the Galapagos Islands.

Eating

ChurrascoFood in Ecuador is reasonably cheap and I always try to eat the local cuisine in restaurants where the locals might eat.
Breakfast: I always book into accommodation where breakfast is provided.
Lunch: Typically a set menu with 3 courses for $3.
Dinner: One course with meat, rice and lentils or beans, usually around $5.

A good area to find food is around Foch Plaza in the suburb called Mariscal. In the middle of the plaza you will find more trendy, modern restaurants which are also more expensive. In the streets just off the plaza you will find more local food at a more affordable price.

Accommodation

For a private room in a budget hotel you can expect to pay around $20-$30 per night.
For a bed in a hostel dorm room you can expect to pay somewhere around $9 – $15
As per usual, whether it is a hostel or hotel, I book using booking.com


Transport

Buses around Quito and beyond cost on average $1 per hour of travel, which is quite cheap. The biggest problem is that there is a bus station at either end of the city, which take an hour to get to. THEN you can take your bus to your onward destination. A taxi to one of these stations may cost up to $10.

Taxis around town are hit and miss. When you catch a taxi, make sure it is Taxi Seguro (secure/safe taxi), check that it has cameras and that it uses a meter. If it doesn’t use a meter, negotiate your price before getting in. When the meter is on, the prices are typically really good.

Walk.. walking and getting lost in a new city is a very enjoyable experience and you come across all sorts of interesting things. I consider Quito safe to explore by foot, but I would not recommend walking up the hill up to El Pancillo. The area around El Pancillo is where all the thieves used to hang out, and the place you are most likely to be mugged.

Airport transfers, with a bus you can expect to pay $2 between Quito and the airport. For a taxi the standard rate is $30.

Quito

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