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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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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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