When We Were There: January 17–February 24, 2009
Places We Visited: Vilcabamba, Cuenca, Quito (with day trips to Otavalo, Mindo, and Papallacta), Galapagos Islands, Cuyabeno (Amazon Jungle), Banos, Latacunga, Quilotoa Loop, Ambato
View all of our posts about Ecuador here.
Exchange Rate: Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.
See a breakdown of our Ecuadorian budget here.
WHAT WE DID
A convenient and beautiful stop on the overland route from Peru to Ecuador, we spent a few days here enjoying the rolling green hills, the excellent food, and the first-class accomodations. Defying the rainy season and the swollen rivers, we did one of the local hikes, which provided excellent views.
On the road between Vilcabamba and Quito, Cuenca makes for a nice stop. You get a little city life, but without the intensity of Quito. We enjoyed walking around town, past the old and new cathedrals, and along the river, with its nice stone bridges and impressive houses. We also visited the Bank Museum ($3 each), which despite its name, is not a museum about banks, but is instead about Ecuadorian culture and includes admission to the Inca ruins behind the museum. We also spent one day doing nothing but watching Obama’s inauguration.
We spent much more time in Quito than the average tourist thanks to the fact that Theresa’s “Ecuadorian cousin” Sole lives here, and we stayed with her and her family. We did a self-guided tour of the Old City and it’s many churches, including the lovely Basilica ($2 each) and La Compania ($2 each). We spent an evening on La Ronda, checking out all the little shops and trying various favorite local foods, as well as a couple of nights in La Mariscol. We traveled to the Middle of the World ($2 each) and the Inti-Nan Museum ($3 each). We went up the Teleferico ($9 each) on a rare less-cloudly day for a view of the city, and we enjoyed the view of the lit-up city from the large statue of Mary. On day trips from Quito, we went up to the famous Otavalo market, visited the hummingbirds in Mindo, and enjoyed the hot springs at Papallacta. We also spent a lot of time enjoying the company of Sole and her family.
These phenomenal islands are easily the highlight of any trip to Ecuador. We spent 8 days aboard the catamaran Nemo II. It’s not a budget venture no matter what way you look at it ($1,640 each plus $415.30 flight to Galapagos, plus $100 admission fee), but we found it worth every of the many, many pennies it cost.
In the northern part of Ecuador’s Amazon, the Cuyabeno Reserve is home to many lodges and jungle camps, along with animals such as caimans, anacondas, river dolphins, and all kinds of birds, bugs, spiders, and butterflies. We stayed at Jamu Lodge on a 4 day/3 nightÂ trip ($175 each plus $124.10 flight plus $20 admission to the reserve) where we spent most of each day out on motorized canoe trips searching for wildlife. It was okay, not great.
A popular town with both international and local tourists, Banos is named for the hot springs found in the area. We visited the local baths one night, but I didn’t even get in as people were literally body to body. I’d recommend Papallacta if you want nice thermal baths. But we did enjoy other of the town’s offerings. We rented bikes ($5 each) and followed a popular route past many waterfalls to the spectacular Devil’s Cauldron ($1 each). We also had fun watching others throw themselves off the bridge (on a bungee swing), checking out the many sugar cane and taffy stands, and wandering around town.
A collection of tiny villages set amid stunning scenery and connected with hiking trails and bus routes, the Quilotoa Loop was one of our favorite places on mainland Ecuador. After an overnight in Latacunga, we took the early bus to Saquisili for their famed Thursday market, which is not to be missed. That afternoon, we connected to Isinlivi, a tiny but friendly town. From there, we spent a day hiking through beautiful countryside to Chugchilan, where we overnighted. Catching a ride, we then spent the next day at Quilotoa, where we took the 4-hour hike around the emerald crater lake. That night we connected by bus back to Latacunga. We were able to interact with a lot of locals, take part in a fiesta, and enjoy village life.
Home of Ecuador’s biggest Carnival celebration, Ambata was a one-day stop for us on the weekend before Fat Tuesday. We enjoyed catching part of a parade and seeing a bull fight ($15 each), but we didn’t find the throwing of shit so spectacular (literally shit, as well as foam, water, and other items less nasty than shit.)
WHERE WE STAYED
Hosteria Izhcayluma (Vilcabamba): Situated above the actual town, this hosteria requires a bit of a walk, but its well worth it, as its practically a resort. On beautiful grounds, there are many small residences—solo cabins, slightly-larger cabin-like buildings with four individual dwellings, and even a dorm. The views are amazing, the food is spectacular (breakfast includes fresh fruit, hot drinks, fruit drinks, breads, eggs, and crepes), and the staff is very helpful providing maps of the trails in the area as well as suggestions on which to do. There’s also a pool and a bar with ping pong and pool tables. We stayed in one of the units divided into four and had a comfortable double bed as well as a large bathroom with huge stone shower. Double with private bathroom and breakfast for $28. (Wi-fi available for a small fee in the dining area)
Hotel Milan (Cuenca): This is a basic hotel, not a hostel, but one of the better deals in town. It was clean and well-located: an easy walk to anywhere. Our room was a bit noisy in the mornings because we were above a shop; I’d ask for a room on a higher floor next time. Breakfast is basic but served on the top floor with a nice view of the busy square below. No wi-fi, but one computer with Internet in the lobby, and many cafes nearby. $22 for a double with private bathroom, TV, and breakfast.
Sole’s House (Quito): Our best accomodations yet! While in Quito, we stayed in the home of Theresa’s “Ecuadorian cousin.”
Thermals at Papallacta: We stayed overnight with our friends at the property where the Papallacta thermals are located, which gave us round-the-clock access to private thermals. We stayed in one of the cabins, which can hold up to 6 people, and has a nice fireplace, large bathroom with jacuzzi tub and shower, and small kitchen/cooking facilities. $165 for a 6-person cabin.
Nemo II (Galapagos): We loved the catamaran and would recommend it to others looking for a small boat from which to explore the Galapagos. Holding only 12 people plus staff, it allowed for an intimate experience with the water and the islands. We were able to visit a few sites closed to larger boats, and disembarkations and loadings took no time at all. The rooms are small and basic, but we hardly spent any time in them as we were either on an island or up top on deck watching the sunset or gazing out at the dolphins jumping around us.
Jamu Lodge (Cuyabeno): This is a budget option for those looking to go into the Amazon, and it shows. The food was okay, but not that good. The rooms were very basic. And the bathrooms inadequate. Additionally, the staff wasn’t particularly attentive. For instance, every morning, water had to be pumped up by a generator to stock the showers and toilets, but no staff members got up early to do it, so you’d get up every day and have to wait for water. Our guide was excellent (but he was freelance and works for many different lodges), but I wouldn’t particularly recommend the lodge. It’s not terrible, especially for the price in comparison to others, but it’s not going to get a return visit from us. $175 for a 4 day/3 night package.
El Marques (Banos): This lovely hotel has nice, big rooms with comfy beds, televisions, and good bathrooms. We also had a balcony with a waterfall view, a nice extra. Wi-fi is available in common areas but doesn’t work in the rooms. $25 for a double with private bathroom and TV.
Hotel Estambul (Latacunga): Our book had pretty much no info on Latacunga beyond the listing of a few basic hotels. We wandered around until we found this one, which was basic but fine. We later found a better one (see below), which I’d recommend over this one. $22 for a double with private bathroom.
Hostal Tiana (Latacunga): Owned by the same people as Llulu Llama (see below), this is a welcoming backpacker hostel in a town without anything else like it. The rooms are large and nice, and the breakfast is delicious. There are only shared bathrooms, however, which could get crowded if the place is full, but weren’t a problem for us. $20 for a double with shared bath, wi-fi, and breakfast.
Llulu Llama (Isinlivi): Pretty much the only place to stay in town, it’s also the only place you’d want to stay. A cosy place built in the local style, there’s a warm common room with wood-burning stove, and full, filling, and delicious dinner and breakfast are included in the rate. The staff is really helpful and friendly, and they have excellent information on treks in the area, as well as guides if you’d like one. There’s only a shared bathroom with a composting toilet (but an excellent view!). $40 for a double with dinner and breakfast.
Hostal Cloud Forest (Chugchilan): This family-run hostal is a welcoming place after the long hike from Isinlivi. They are currently expanding the place, but the construction noise is no trouble, and the staff will make you feel like part of the family (inviting us to a birthday fiesta). $22 for a double room with private bath plus dinner and breakfast.
PLACES WE ATE
Ecuador has a wide variety of food, and it’s almost all excellent. You can get anything from a set lunch of local food for $2 up to a world-class sushi meal for $20. They have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as the juices to go with them, all of which are worth a try. And as with Peru, ceviche is a popular national dish. It’s a different style in Ecuador though, more of a salsa style akin to what we had in Belize, and I have to say much, much better than that in Peru! As you’ll notice, most of the food listed below is non-Ecuadorian. That’s because we were lucky enough to eat the majority of our meals at home with Sole and her family, indulging in lots of homemade Ecuadorian meals with them.
Jardin (Vilcabamba): We ordered from the Mexican part of the menu, choosing fajitas and super nachos, and we weren’t disappointed. It’s hard to find Mexican food in most of the world it seems, so this was a welcome change. $14.50 for lunch for two.
Hosteria Izhcayluma (Vilcabamba): We ate dinner twice at the place we were staying, and not just because it was a long walk into town. The food was delicious! They have a very broad menu, and we tried a pork dish, a pasta dish, a steak dish, and a German dish (the owners are German), and we loved them all. Also, there’s free water for guests…something we miss so much from home! $12 for dinner for two.
Roma (Cuenca): Near our hotel, this pizza place served us up a good dinner after a long bus ride. The pizza’s are big and tasty. $15 for a large pizza plus drinks.
Grecia (Cuenca): This popular local place serves a set lunch any day. There are no menus because there are no choices. What they’re serving is posted outside and as soon as you sit down, they start bringing it to you. It’s filling and good, especially since it was only $2 per person!
Eucalyptus (Cuenca): The Asian menu at this place inspired us and we went with spring rolls, sushi, and a curry. It was good but not exactly authentic, so didn’t quite hit the spot. But as they say, beggars can’t be choosy. $24 for dinner for two.
Amazona (Between Quito and Ambata): This large, road-side restaurant is apparently the best place to go to taste fritata, the beloved local dish of fried pork. Huge platters are made to suit various numbers of people and come with the pork, potatoes, and a couple of types of corn. We rounded it out with tortillas and avocados, as we were told this is the proper way to do it. Delicious and a lot of food! $22 for lunch for 4 adults and 1 kid.
Taqueria la Michoacana (Quito): This hole-in-the-wall serves straight up Mexican taqueria food cooked by a Mexican lady. We enjoyed the tostadas, but I think the tacos looked even better! $22 for lunch for 4 adults
Casa Hood (Banos): This restaurant is popular with tourists for both its varied menu and its extensive book exchange (though unfortunately the very best books were for borrowing only). We ate here twice. The first time we had nachos and falafals, which were very good. The second time we had pad thai and a burrito, which weren’t as good. The milkshakes were nice, as were the fruit juices. $9.50 and $13.55 for dinner for two.
Plantas y Blanchas (Banos): We had breakfast at this popular hostel. My French Toast was a little too eggy but the bread was nice and thick, and Jeff enjoyed his omelet. The juice was fresh squeezed. $5 for breakfast for two.
Doner Kebab (Banos): The name had us excited, the reality of it not so much. What we got was more closely related to a chicken sandwich than a kebab. I guess we shouldn’t have expected more but after the doner kebabs we found in Argentina, we thought we might have luck. $4.50 for dinner for two.
Casa Chifa (Latacunga): Fast and filling, as Chinese food seems to be around the world, we had a tasty dinner of lo mein. There’s not a lot of options in this town, so it was a good choice. $9 for dinner for two.
Noe Sushi Bar (Quito): The premier place to get sushi in Quito, this place did not disappoint. It was as good as our favorite place at home, maybe even better. The rolls are big, and the menu offers all the regulars plus a number of creative offerings. $84 for lunch for 4.
Magic Bean (Quito): In the backpacker district of La Mariscol, we had breakfast at this popular place. Though not cheap, the portions are huge (both for food and drinks). The chocolate chip pancakes and French toast were tasty, and the juices delicious. $17.15 for breakfast for two.
*Buses in Ecuador offer little choice. There aren’t different classes, but simply one level of basic bus (if you’re lucky there’s a working bathroom). Every bus we were on took longer than advertised thanks to a lot of road work, and the “directo” bus was only direct if you consider that it didn’t ever go in the wrong direction; it just stopped at every possible place along the way. Blue hearts on the highway symbolize places where people have died, and unfortunately, it’s usually in bus crashes. Avoid traveling overnight and you should be fine.
*Things aren’t as cheap as you would expect in Ecuador, primarily because they use the dollar. But before you complain, remember that locals are paying this and making much less than you probably do (although many sites do have reduced rates for residents).
*The Galapagos are expensive. Period. There’s no real way around it. Some people try to do the islands without a cruise, by flying to the islands and then taking various day trips to other sites. When we were out there, we took notice of the prices of these day trips while in the two towns we visited, and we came to the conclusion that this might actually be more expensive. Most day trips seemed to be $150 and up. And unlike the boat tours, they don’t include food or accommodation. You also spend a lot of daylight hours in transit, whereas on the boats, most travel is done in the evening.
In my opinion, there is no point in going for anything less than the 8 day cruise. You won’t get to see much on a 4 or 5 day cruise. Also, be sure that your 8 day cruise isn’t really just two short cruises combined; if it is, half the passengers will disembark half way through and you’ll lose one of your days in port.
I highly recommend waiting until you get to Quito and booking a tour. You’ll get the best price, and you shouldn’t have to wait long at all. We went into a tour office on Friday evening and were offered a spot on a boat leaving Sunday. Shop around, as price varies even between offices on the same street. We got the best rate at Tip Top Travel on the corner of Foch in La Mariscol. Just down the street, our same boat was offered at $200 more. Also, if you want to really save, have cash. All the agents add a decent surcharge if you use credit cards.
There’s a boat for every taste, so consider what it is you want and then look for that. You can go on a huge cruise with hundreds of people or a small catamaran with 12 total passengers. There are also different classes: economy (or tourist) class, tourist superior class, first class, and luxury. We weren’t planning on it, but we went on a first class boat, because we found that the different in price between economy and first class was very small, but the difference in quality was quite large.