First impressions are incredibly important in this life. Within the first five to ten minutes, we can make up our minds as to whether or not we like someone and the impression can easily last a lifetime. We don’t let border crossings influence our first impressions of a country as they are usually filled with chaos and people that are generally a little unhappy with life. To gather our first impression of Ecuador, we ventured into the town of Tulcan where our first stop was the town’s main cemetery. Visiting a cemetery to gain a first impression is not generally recommended but the Tulcan Municipal Cemetery is different than most. In 1936, Josè Maria Azael Franco took charge of maintaining the bushes within the cemetery confines and began sculpting them into large archways, geometric shapes and other designs resembling fat men squatting or animals. Entry to the cemetery is free and our Sunday arrival was met with dozens of other people wandering through the cemetery enjoying the decades of work put into the many acres of hedges. Unlike most cemeteries we are used to seeing, the Tulcan Cemetery has many large structures to hold bodies often a dozen slots high by hundreds of slots in width. Stairways lead to the top of these structures to give visitors a great view of the cemetery and landscape surrounding the city. The people we talked to at the cemetery were incredibly friendly and we concluded that our first impression of Ecuador was good considering our first stop was a little unusual. We could only hope that the rest of Ecuador provided the same feelings for us!
Laughlin caught this guy taking a nap:
Filling up with fuel was our next priority following our visit to the cemetery in Tulcan. Before leaving Colombia, we missed the last filling station to spend the rest of our Colombian Pesos so filling up was becoming urgent as we neared our last eighth of diesel. We read that filling stations near the border often limit the amount of fuel that can be purchased to $10 or charge an extra fee in an attempt to keep Colombians from crossing the border just to buy cheap Ecuadorian fuel. About twenty miles into Ecuador, we found a large filling station and pulled in to find that the price for a gallon of diesel was $1.03! Nearly every country south of the US border charged higher prices than what we paid in the US and we were elated to finally find the cheap prices we were looking for considering the record low prices of oil. $28 later, we were back on the road and I was feeling giddy knowing a heavy foot wouldn’t break our budget in Ecuador!
Through northern Ecuador, we made our way south following the Pan American Highway towards the city of Ibarra. Gradually, the landscape changed as we dropped in elevation seeing dry, desert for the first time since our one day in Honduras. The mountains appeared to be much more gradual than Colombia, but they were equally as large. As we gained elevation once again, we were back into lightly forested areas with incredibly large mountains surrounding us. On the outskirts of Ibarra, we saw snow on the mountain tops for the first time since leaving Mexico many months earlier. Our elevation at Ibarra was near 7,500 feet which made for warm daytime temperatures and cool overnight temperatures.
We found our first real RV park in some time!
Which allowed for some one handed catch-up on the blog…
From Ibarra, we circled around the volcano Cerro Imbabura to the town of Cotacachi and onto Laguna Cuicocha. Laguna Cuicocha is one of the most photographed bodies of water in Ecuador. At nearly 10,000 feet, it lies in the caldera of the Cotacachi Volcano and, when the sun shines brightly, the water glimmers with a turquoise color. It was cloudy when we arrived and the water didn’t look any different than other lakes we have visited but once we made our way up the hiking trail, the sun peaked through the clouds and the color changed instantly. To be able to see the volcano clearly would have been a treat, but we were satisfied to see the turquoise water during our short visit.
Our stop for our second night in Ecuador was at Valentin’s Campground. Four years earlier, Valentin planted some grass around his avocado tree along with some privacy hedges to begin accepting campers at his residence. He explained to us that he doesn’t do the campground for the money but asks his guests to join him and his family for conversation during the evening. After dinner, we joined his family in their house for a couple hours where we learned more about Ecuador, their family and received Spanish lessons once again. It rained throughout the night and continued through the morning but Valentin insisted on climbing high into the avocado tree in the morning to pluck some avocados for us, despite the ladder and tree being soaked and slick. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and agreed that when we come back to Ecuador in the future, we would come visit again.
Ecuador’s name is derived from the term “equator.” At Valentin’s campground, we were about a quarter mile away from the equator where a nice visitor center was established. We were surprised to see Valentin’s son working at the visitor’s center when we arrived in the morning. He explained how the solar calendar and clock work, the pre-Spanish discovery of and archaeological sites on the equatorial line. We learned that Ecuador is one of the best places to observe the equator due to the mountains which offer points of reference to see the change in the sun’s location throughout the year. Many myths surrounding the equator were explained as false including the rotation of the flushing toilet due to Coriolis Effect. As it turns out, the Coriolis Effect isn’t strong enough to impact the direction of a flushing toilet and the direction actually depends on the design of the toilet itself. Sad but true. We thought the equator would be one of the hottest places to visit on our trip, but at nearly 10,000 feet and cloudy with rain, we were forced to wear sweatshirts. We were lucky to have the entire monument to ourselves during our visit which made enduring the rain easier.
Right in the center of Ecuador is its capital city, Quito. We heard mixed reviews of the city, most of which indicated that it was somewhat boring but we wanted to see for ourselves. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived to the city so we parked the truck and took off on foot towards old town. As we neared old town, we glanced to the west and noticed an enormous gothic style church that had to be explored. The church is relatively new being constructed over the last 100 years and is still not finished. Rumors are that once the church is finished, a cataclysmic event will occur destroying the church. This is possibly another reason it is still being constructed. For $2/per person, it is possible to climb the stairs of the bell towers, walk across a catwalk on top of the church and ultimately up the to the very top of the highest towers on the church nearly 300 feet in the air. Neither of us are scared of heights but this definitely got our adrenaline flowing climbing free floating ladders hundreds of feet in the air. We ventured into the Plaza Grande area enjoying the shops and people out and about for the evening. After a long taxi ride home, we painfully took cold water showers with outside temperatures of 55 degrees.
Our second and last day in Quito was spent on the hop on, hop off city tour bus. We were able to locate a bus stop very close to our parking spot and enjoyed being driven throughout the city. The roads in Quito are pretty bad, some of which are cobblestone. It was nice to be able to sit back and relax on the bus, but at times, it was a little crazy. One of the stops was at El Panicillo, which is a hill that overlooks the entire city. A massive angel sits on top of the hill and can be seen from nearly any spot in the old city. We hopped off the bus again to enjoy some biscoches which are similar to biscottis but with the flavor and texture of a croissant. The tour bus picked us up again and whisked us back to our starting point ultimately ending our tour of Quito. Our final assessment of Quito is that it is a fun town to visit with an tons of history but don’t make a long vacation stay here or you may be a little disappointed.
From Quito, we headed south towards Cotapaxi National Park. Cotapaxi is a volcano within the park at an elevation of just over 19,000 feet. It was 4:00pm when we arrived at the gate and found out the gate closes at 3:00pm. A ranger allowed us to park at the entrance overnight. Fog and temperatures around 40 degrees met us overnight making for a chilly morning but we fired up the furnace in the Alaskan and were quickly comfortable. It is places and conditions like this that make us thankful to have a camper vs. rooftop tent or van. In the morning, we poked our head out the window to find an overlander we saw in Guatemala parked next to us. Their batteries were dead and we gave them a quick jump to get on their way. We suspect they were French, but our best common language was Spanish so we didn’t visit too long.
We ventured into the park late in the morning as the fog was still quite dense. Approaching Cotapaxi from the northwest, we could see the snow poking through the clouds but opted to save our hike for a different day as the clouds were moving fast and it was on the verge of raining. We parked at the Limpiopungo Lagoon and went for a nice walk around the deceivingly large lake. The lagoon is a good place for birdwatching as there aren’t many other bodies of water at this elevation. Although the trail around the lagoon was relatively flat, we huffed and puffed as we were at nearly 13,000 feet in elevation. Following our hike, we drove towards our camp spot for the night and sampled some coca tea, which is common around here to help with headaches due to high altitudes. The tea was pretty bland and, since we didn’t have headaches to begin with, it didn’t help anything. The warm drink was nice considering the chilly temperatures. We set up the camper in a grove of trees and settled in to watch the fast moving clouds, rainbows and eventually went to bed to the sound of lightly falling rain, completely engulfed in fog.
It was a good night to make pizza in the camper!
The following morning, the weather was exactly the same. We had hoped for it to crack, but over the course of several hours, the fog would begin to break, then become so thick we couldn’t see more than twenty feet away. Around ten, we had the camper dropped and truck ready to go and decided we would drive towards Cotapaxi to see if the weather was any different on the other side of the hill. Sure enough, we dropped to the other side of the hill and it was somewhat sunny. It was interesting to see the wavelike motion of clouds continuously fill the valley where we camped but break as soon as they hit the hill separating the two valleys. Slowly but surely, we pointed the trusty Dodge up the switchbacks climbing the volcano and ended up at the parking lot at just over 15,000 feet. The air was thin and every action of gathering our gear to begin the hike seemed to suck the air right out of our lungs. No vegetation grew at this altitude and the landscape resembled the moon’s with volcanic rock and sand making up the majority of the land under our feet. As we began hiking, clouds were whirling by us with a dusting of snow and ice pelting our faces. Eventually, we found our way to the lodge right at the snow line where we each had a cup of the best hot chocolate we have ever had. The thick creamy texture and sweet chocolate taste was a perfect treat to end the hike. Before making our way back down to the truck, we pulled out the GPS and noticed we were only 80 feet from being at 16,000 feet in elevation so we walked further up the volcano until the GPS read our location right at 16,000 feet. This was certainly the highest elevation we had been to.
South of Cotapaxi we drove a few hours to see an impressive waterfall near the town of Banos. We were surprised by the sprawling cities and towns filling the valley between Cotapaxi and Banos but eventually navigated through. Near the river just a couple miles away from Banos, we crossed an enormous bridge over a raging river below, took a hairpin curve that many people had clearly missed, crossed a super sketchy metal bridge that clanged loudly over each section of the floor below and ended up going through three tunnels with water literally pouring out of the ceiling. It was unexpected and we laughed at the craziness of the previous few miles as we parked the truck to begin our hike to the waterfall.
The descent to the Cascada Pailon del Diablo is a short hike down a steep trail. As soon as we approached the valley below, the roar of the waterfall could be heard clearly. A beautiful restaurant is perched on the cliff just below the waterfall with a suspended bridge connecting to another building on the other side of the river. We paid our $1.50 each and began climbing the stairs until we saw the falls. Looking over the edge, the spray from the water pounding the river bottom filled the air and slowly began to soak us. We climbed on our hands and knees through a crack between the rocks to climb higher, eventually emerging halfway up the waterfall and mere inches away from certain death. It was hard to believe that people would be allowed to be this close to the raging waterfall, but we reminded ourselves that we were in Latin America where just about anything goes!
When we opened the camper that night, it looked like a bomb went off. It was certainly the worst it has ever been!
In the morning, we drove to the Casa del Arbol about 45 minutes from where we camped the previous night. The Casa del Arbol translates to “treehouse” and is a beautiful location just below Volcano Tungurahua. Four huge swings are set up for visitors to return to their childhood with a bit of a twist. The swings are set up right on the edge of a cliff so as you begin swinging outward, your mind is tricked into thinking you are flying off the cliff! The first few swings made us squirm but we quickly overcame the fear and enjoyed our visit greatly.
Without missing a beat, we left the Casa del Arbol backtracking a bit to the north to visit Lake Quilotoa. The lake is formed in the bottom of a volcano crater that has filled in over the years. We intended on hiking as soon as we arrived but the entire volcano was dense with fog and wind and cold rain quickly dominated the weather for the remainder of the night. We opted to stay in the camper for the afternoon drinking hot chocolate and watching movies! The hot chocolate was an attempt at recreating the hot chocolate from Cotapaxi and was good, but we still need to tweak the recipe a bit.
Early the following morning, we awoke to find thinly clouded skies and we committed to complete the hike around the volcano rim. We ate a hearty breakfast and began walking down the trail. Starting out, the hike was mostly downhill but quickly rose as we approached the climb to the highest point on the entire trail, just shy of 13,000 feet. Stopping frequently was necessary in the thin air but we always made it to the top. As clouds broke in the distance, we could see snowcapped peaks poking over the horizon. It was clear that we were in the Andes Mountains and our excitement began to grow as we knew our near future travels would take us deeper into this incredible mountain range. A little over four hours after beginning the hike, we found our way back to the truck and camper where we rested before leaving in search of suitable camping at lower elevation.
Two months before arriving in Ecuador, we were hearing about record breaking rains plaguing Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Other overlanders were reporting landslides and road damage preventing travel through many routes in those countries. As we left Quilotoa, we found ourselves on one of these routes with small to medium landslides around nearly every corner. Dense fog settled onto the mountain pass and heavy Sunday traffic paired with landslides blocking the roads made for an interesting descent down the mountain. The fog was so dense at times, we could only see a few feet in front of us and reminded us of the agony of traveling down the Wyoming highways in winter with ground blizzards playing tricks in your head. Over the course of an hour, we dropped in elevation from 13,000 feet to just over 1,000 as we approached our camp spot for the night in the town of Quevedo.
In our next blog post, we will share why we left the cool, beautiful mountain region of central Ecuador to visit the coastal region. It will be a post filled with photos from our visit to the “Poor Man’s Galapagos!”