I spent a fair chunk of time in Ecuador – close to 6 weeks, but still only scratched the surface of this beautiful, accessible, and diverse country. The plan was to slow down a bit after my hectic trips through Cuba and Jamaica – this was the perfect place for it.
- Football in Quitos – intensive local rivalry, and international powerhouse:
- LDU Quito vs Emelec (the best football teams from the two biggest Ecuadorian cities). After purchasing a shirt of the local team (LDU Quito), and going through 3 layers of security pat downs and searches (the most I’ve ever experienced – anywhere), I quickly realized I somehow ended up in the section of the stadium reserved for the visiting fans (from Emelec). These fans congregated around a couple of guys with massive drums and before I knew it I was in the middle of what seemed to be a mix of an extended ‘haka’ dance combined with drums and whistles – for a good hour before the game even started. It was pretty intense! I slipped away from the crowd to the bathroom where I changed my shirt (removed the Quito top I had on). The security presence at this section was massive, hundreds of riot police, police with large dogs, combined with regular police, after the game we were forced to wait 20 minutes until after the rest of the stadium had emptied out – I figured something serious must have happened between these two clubs in the past, and after some quick research learned that a considerable part of Ecuadorian history includes the rivalry between the ‘conservative’ Quito and the ‘progressive’ Guayaquil – and this has manifested in different ways (starting from when the Spanish had just arrived, to different presidents in the 20th Century, to alignment with different foreign powers, and more recently conflicts between football fans!). Fortunately the crowds behaved, there were no incidents as far as I know, and it was a good game to watch.
- Brazil vs Ecuador – world cup qualifier. I had on my bucket list to see an international game – was thrilled to learn that the Brazilian team were playing Ecuador in a do or die World Cup Qualifier. A light rain storm hit at the perfect time just when I was negotiating with some scalpers and we scored a massive discount to see the game. The quality of football was high, and it was a great game to watch. It was interesting to see how one of the superstars of the game (Neymar) reacted to a fan that slipped through security, made it onto the pitch and hugged Neymar. Neymar waved away the incompetent security, and called for his long sleeve top to be bought out, he then gave his own top to the runner to the applause of the crowd! Wow.
- Majestic Quito – in addition to a bedridden week of sickness (caused in part by the disgusting diesel exhaust fumes belched out by the local buses), I spent close to 2 weeks based in Quito: a charming and historic city in its own right, but with easily accessible day trips. By the end I had turned into an unofficial tourist agent convincing visitors to extend their short stays by a few days. My favourite memories included:
- Half day climb up Pichincha Volcano – an easy cable car ride, then 3 hour hike/scramble to get to the peak at close to 4700m. Was extremely accessible and a nice quick challenge with incredible views (and great way to start to acclimatize to the Andes after a couple of months in the Caribbean).
- Short hikes up local parks and peaks in Quito, including Park Itchimbia for a daily yoga/meditation routine with the powerful sunrise, Basilica Vota Del Nationa for awesome birds eye view of the old historic City, and walk up El Panecillo (despite numerous warnings that we’d be mugged, it was a lovely peaceful walk up with great views).
- Day trips to Otavalo (pitched as the biggest South American local market), Cotopaxi (climb to Refugio at 4800 meters on a clear day, then mountain biking down) and Mindo (known for its chocolate, trails, and butterflies). All of these sites are solid destinations in their own right.
- Quilotoa loop – a multi day hike in the Ecuadorian highlands, through gorgeous deep, farmland valleys, friendly and curious locals, awesome backpacking hostels to the majestic Quilotoa Caldera. This was a really special experience which is unlikely to remain as off the beaten path in the future – it is already becoming more popular and no doubt more development and infrastructure will follow.
- Tena and the upper amazon – just a few hours bus ride from Quito you can get out of the Andes and into the upper area of the Amazon, and it feels like a completely different country with different climate, activities, and indigenous populations. In Tena I spent a few days doing day hikes which were unique and memorable, including the Gran Canyon (didn’t meet a single other person on the hike to the remote cave waterfalls), and Jatun Socha (jungle biological reserve which features large colourful butterflies and a tricky 30 meter vertical canopy climb up a very skinny swaying structure of three poles).
- Banos with gorgeous but precarious surrounds – heading back towards the Andes I made a obligatory stay at Banos, which is wedged in a valley surrounded by very steep mountains on each side. It is both breathtaking, but also a little scary given how common earthquake induced landslides are in this part of the continent. The highlights from Banos included the downhill 60km ride to Puyo, bridge jumping of a 100 meters (without any elastic ropes), relaxing in volcanic heated spa baths, and feeling like a kid again swinging on swing high above the City). On my last morning there I felt a tremor from an earthquake in Peru – then I knew it was time to move on! Btw while in Ecuador I was monitoring the earthquake situation closely, and it is shocking to realize how common earthquakes are across South America.
- Cuenca – another charming old UNESCO listed City (like Quito old City). This city was the ‘northern Inka capital’ for a short period of time as the Inkas expanded northwards before the Spanish arrived. After the spanish arrived they introduced their own architecture and Cuenca is known by some as the ‘Paris of Ecuador’. It would be easy to think you are in Europe walking the streets of Cuenca, many old churches, cathedrals and museums. The highlight for me was a day trip to Cajas National Park for some hiking in the Ecuadorian highlands – some flora I haven’t seen anywhere else before in my life, and bagging another 4000m+ peak – Cerro San Luis.
- Vilcabamba Yoga hostel retreat! A serene hostel which crosses as a retreat and yoga / alternative healing center. A real highlight and a great way to finish the time in Ecuador. Free morning yoga sessions on a beautiful open air studio overlooking the valley.
There are many sites to see in Ecuador which I didn’t get to – as I prepare to swing into Northern Peru then deep into the Amazon, I remind myself that you simply can’t see it all – but to focus on what is calling out to you.