After a gruelling night bus we arrived into Cuenca, a colonial city with UNESCO world heritage status. We enjoyed walking around the city and were surprised to hear the majority of people speaking English—there is a huge American population living here. We visited the close by national park of El Cajas, known for its numerous lakes. There are over 270 lakes and we spent the day hiking through the lush expanse. It could easily have been somewhere in the British Isles. Ecuador was proving to be incredibly diverse and hiking was such a nice way of seeing so much of it.
After leaving Secret Garden with heavy hearts we headed to do the Quilotoa loop with our lovely French friend, Pablo. At home Pablo is a hiking guide, so we struck lucky and had our own personal guide.
Having left our main bags in the nearby town of Latacunga we started our adventure in a small village called Sigchos, the lush green landscape stretched out before us. We had a lovely but very wet first day. Luckily we stayed in a hostel in a small place called Insinlivi that had a fire so we were able to dry our clothes.
The second day had some of the most dramatic landscapes as we walked towards out next destination, Chugchilan. The green valleys split and parted and the landscape seemed endless. We had a lovely picnic lunch in the sun followed by a relaxed walk to our second night’s accommodation.
Our third day was a longer day of hiking with more elevation gain involved. The landscape began to change, and became less green and more volcanic looking. We continued up towards the crater lake, but by the time we got there the weather had closed in and we could not see a thing—we could have been anywhere! We then spent the night in Quilotoa, which was a great idea as the next day we had clear skies and we were able to see the crater. The reflection of the clouds in the water was absolutely stunning. Having taken about a hundred photos we continued on to our last destination of the trip, Tigua. Home to a community of indigenous artists, the little trodden path was completely ours. After a couple of wrong turnings and precarious river crossings later, we arrived (sort of) in Tigua. The heavens opened and it began to throw it down. Although initially intending to visit some galleries, we were hindered by the rain and decided to hail a bus back to Latacunga. The next day we waved off Pablo, again teary for the second time in a week.
This is probably going to be the hardest blog post to write, not least because we have thousands of photographs, hundreds of good times, and we had the heaviest of hearts leaving this place. We made some of the best friends of our trip and we really found our slice of heaven in South America. We are writing this full of emotion due to the nostalgia of missing namely Victor, Pablo, Sophia and Patrick. But the absolute contentedness and surreal homely feel that we found three and a half thousand meters above sea level, not too far from the equator, wrapped up in an isolated part of Ecuador brings smiles to our faces whenever we think about it.
Situated just outside Cotopaxi National Park, the Secret Garden hostel enjoys stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes. A home away from home it has a lovely, relaxed feel. A cosy fireplace dominates the main social area and five dogs huddle together, tired after their daily long walk. A giant hammock is located with breathtaking views of the Cotopaxi volcano, its almost perfect shape never ceasing to amaze. Hobbit holes give the sight a unique charm.
While it would take pages to detail everything we got up to over the month, here is a quick rundown of achievements gained while living there:
• Three volcanoes summited—one of them over 20 times between us
• Amazing friends
• An insight into farming life in the hills of Ecuador
• One film made
• Experience riding a llama (Ali)
• Learning how to slack line—sort of (Rose)
While working here for the month our main job was to guide two of the local hikes: one was through the river to a few waterfalls and the second was a longer, harder hike to the summit of the extinct volcano Pasochoa at 4200m. We really enjoyed the physical exercise every day and luckily we got really well fed too. Other work included chopping wood, painting and building odd things for the hostel.
We were working with the manager Victor, an absolutely amazing Argentinian who made us feel so welcome and actually had a very similar sense of humour to us. The lovely Sophia was the other manager and our personal yoga teacher and joint fun times beer drinker. We were also working with Pablo, a vegan-raggaeton obsessed French guy who provided a lot of entertainment, along with Patrick the Swiss guy that taught us some Swiss German that we still haven’t had confirmation is actually true. Gunnar was a very energetic Norwegian guy who had so much enthusiasm for everything. Jeff was a lovely, super fast hiker that broke us into our work and beer drinking well. We are definitely going to miss all of them. The local staff, especially Oliva and Janet, were particularly welcoming. Don Juan, the gardener, was in his 80s and strong as an ox, always saying hello with the biggest of smiles.
When the month came to an end we struggled to stay goodbye. We really battled with the decision to stay on in a more permanent capacity. However, we decided eventually to drag ourselves away and head south towards Peru, hoping to miss the flooding that had been devastating the country.
We flew from the Galapagos into Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. It was a huge contrast to the sunny and cool climate of Quito. It was very hot, humid and wet! We only spent one day here and took the time to walk down the riverside into the centre of the city—it was clearly a huge metropolis, which did not get many tourists. The old colonial buildings, shrouded by more modern high rises was a reminder that not all of South America was behind with the times.
From Guayaquil we went to Baños de Agua Santa after so many people had recommended it. An old spa town, sadly we didn’t like it all that much. There were way too many tourists and the place seemed a bit soulless. However, we did go to the baths early in the morning. We were the only foreigners among mainly older Ecuadorians half asleep enjoying the baths. Interestingly they had an irrigation system in place that meant the locals could wash their clothes in the waterfall that feeds the baths.
After our brief stay we had to make our way back north to Quito to spend the night, before starting our month of volunteering at Cotopaxi National park.
Our final island, San Cristobal, felt more like a seaside port, with hundreds of sealions lazing about the port. Although pushed for time we were determined to make the most of what this island had to offer.
The beach of La Loberia offered the perfect opportunity to snorkel with sealions. From babies to fully-fledged adults, the beach was teeming with sealions who were all too eager to say hello. The sea was quite rough but we weren’t going to let that stop us swimming with them.
Early the next morning we walked to Frigatebird Hill, a lookout point with panoramic views of Shipwreck Bay and Kicker Rock. We were also able to enjoy the bird for which the hill gets its namesake. Watching the birds’ scarlet throat pouch inflate like a balloon to entice mates was thoroughly entertaining.
Before we knew it our time on the Galapagos Islands had come to an end. We were undeniably upset and didn’t feel ready to go. However, given the huge amount we had seen and done in only a week, we had little to feel sad about.
From Santa Cruz we took a rather bumpy ferry to Isabela. The largest island of the Galapagos, it has particularly dramatic landscapes due to its recent volcanic activity. Interestingly, on the map it appears to look like a seahorse. With much less infrastructure than Santa Cruz, its main town Puerto Villamil had a sleepy feel, with beautiful beaches right next to the port.
Our first stop on the island was Concha Perla, a well-known snorkel spot. A natural closed bay with differing wildlife depending on the tide, we were lucky to spot marine iguanas swimming. Surprisingly elegant, they appeared prehistoric as they glided through the water. Although we saw countless fish, unfortunately we didn’t see any penguins, despite them being regularly sighted in this spot.
In the afternoon we headed to the nearby set of pozas (lagoons) to see the greater flamingos and other freshwater birds, such as the black-necked stilt and white-cheeked pintail. We continued to walk along the trail that ran through the lagoons until we arrived at the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas (Tortoise Breeding Centre). Here we could see different breeds of giant tortoise from babies to full grown adults. It was fascinating to see Darwin’s theory of evolution in action as we could see how tortoises from each of the islands had notably different characteristics, in particular shell shape and size. This is a result of evolving to meet the needs of their environment.
The following day we took a snorkelling tour to Los Tuneles, a nursery for marine life. Consisting of convoluted lava formations standing between mangroves and open sea, it was the perfect place to see white-tipped reef sharks, turtles and seahorses. After snorkelling between the lava formations we were able to walk across them, enjoying the different perspective of the wildlife from above.
In the afternoon we rented bikes and cycled to the Wall of Tears, a huge wall constructed between 1945 and 1959 by prisoners in the island’s penal colony. Supposedly thousands died in its construction. On the way we were treated to fantastic views of the island and of Volcan Sierra Negra, a volcano with the second largest crater in the world.
Our trip to the Galapagos began with Santa Cruz Island. The nearest airport is on Baltra Island just north of Santa Cruz, from where you take a boat and bus. As we were coming in to land we saw a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins from the plane which was incredible, while from the bus on the way to the town of Puerto Ayora we saw numerous giant tortoises in the fields either side of the road—a great start!
Having found the cheapest hostel we decided to go to a few tour operators to compare prices for different day trips we wanted to do. Our first day on Santa Cruz was an early wake up to get to Tortuga bay, a long walk to a secluded beach which boasts marine iguanas and sightings of blacktip reef sharks. Tortuga bay was absolutely stunning, a wide and very long beach with barely anyone there; the sun rising over the ocean made it even more amazing. The marine iguanas were everywhere—these big sleepy guys definitely had some character! We were also lucky enough to see lots of bright red crabs, blacktip sharks, pelicans, and green sea turtles—which we paddled out to get a better view of.
We returned to Puerto Ayora for a quick bite to eat before heading to the lava tunnels, which are underground and you can walk through. It was incredible to be inside something that was probably made in a few minutes and had stood the test of time for thousands of years. We then went next door to El Chato, a giant tortoise reserve. Having watched many David Attenborough documentaries, this was one of those utterly lost for words moments: the giant tortoises were huge, tranquil and really sweet! We spent a long time just sitting and watching them, the way they moved and how they farted every so often! We rounded up our day with a visit to the Darwin Research Centre, which gave us a bit of geological background to the islands. We could not believe how much wildlife we had seen in one day. Excited and exhausted we got an early night.
The next day we went on a day tour to Bartolome Island. We luckily were on a really beautiful boat, which meant we were able to sit at the front and enjoy the view the whole way there. We spotted many things breaking the ocean, some of which we thought must have been sharks or rays. However, our most exciting sighting happened as we approached Bartolome: a huge pod of bottle nose dolphins were surrounding our boat. There were about 30 of them, jumping, twisting and talking to each other, which was also amazing to hear and witness. It was one of those truly special moments where everyone on the boat was completely in silence with massive smiles on their face. After visiting Bartolome we had our first Galapagos snorkelling experience in the bay of Santiago Island, which was incredible. The sea was bursting with life, small and big, we saw all sorts of things, from turtles, rays to big and small fish.
The following day we went on a day tour to South Plazas, which is special for its vegetation and for being one of the only islands home to land iguanas. As we approached we talked about how staggeringly different every landscape seemed to be on the Galapagos, you feel like you are going back in time! In the bay when we got to the island we saw a school of sealions, with the alpha male looking after all of the kids. The small sealions were very sweet and seemed to play endless games of tag in the bay. The land iguanas and marine iguanas have bread on this island to make a strange mix of the two and rather similar to the mule they are also infertile. The island is covered in a plant called Sesuvium, which turns from green in wet season to bright red in dry season. Luckily it was dry season when we were there and the contrast between blue waters and the fiery red was striking.