Quilitoa Lagoon, Ecuador
Quilitoa Lagoon, Ecuador
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Week 32 - Ecuador
Written by Tina Sibley in August 2019

The fourth leg of my journey takes me to Quito in Ecuador!  Paradise on Earth!

This is where I will see for the first time how the altitude may or may not affect me.


Monday 5th August

After a good flight, I was picked up at the airport last night by a driver with my name on a card at arrivals - that was SO cool. It was a 45 minute drive and I got to practice my Spanish talking to the driver. The hotel (Hilton Colon) and my room were fantastic on first impressions and I was tired so pretty much went straight to bed. 

My trip to the Papalllacta Hot Springs was the best ever start to my Ecuadorian adventures.

I was collected by the tour operator from the lobby of the hotel and immediately felt happy. The tour guide, Mauro, was really nice and friendly, the bus was super clean and the other people on the tour were also friendly. It was a great and interesting journey with loads of information about the local area and the history.

We stopped off at a lagoon to take pictures and then went on a small hike before taking advantage of the thermal pools. We drove over a mountain pass at 4,200 metres (the same as the Dead Woman's Pass on the way to Machu Picchu) so I'm getting in some altitude acclimatisation. Quito itself is 2,850 metres and the Thermal Springs resort is at almost 3,400 metres so pretty high for my first day. No mega headaches or nausea from altitude sickness yet, but I can certainly feel the effects of it. On our little hike, the smallest incline and exertion had my heart thumping out of my chest and I was incredibly breathless. But so far, so good!

The Thermal Springs were absolute paradise. Sitting in those hot pools, relaxing, being massaged by the jets while looking out over the Andean mountains was something special. It was majestic, breath-taking and spiritual.

It was a feeling that I simply cannot put adequately into words. I felt insignificant, yet totally significant all at the same time.

And the plantlife and wildlife - while in one of the pools, I was close to some flowers and was blessed to see a hummingbird hover and poke its beak into one of the flowers before flying off again. It was so small and so very beautiful. I had only ever seen them on the screen before now.

Another experience not to be missed was the 'sauna'. Unlike a dry heat room, this was more like a steam bath, where we sat opposite a waterfull running with very hot water. The water created steam and hot drips splashed on us while we listened to the waterfall. Bliss.

I got back to the hotel very tired but very happy. It called for a relaxing evening with room service and an early night.


Tuesday 6th August

OK - I have to do SOME work, so spent some time working in my room this morning.

Then, at lunchtime, I went to explore the city of Quito and, in particular the main square - Plaza Foch. What a fabulous place that was. I sat outside a cafe, listening to music (Bachata and salsa), drinking coffee and then pineapple juice, eating lunch and watching the world go about its business. The atmosphere was incredible.

It was a very pleasant 20-21C so after lunch I explored the local artisan markets. I now wish I had brought an empty suitcase so I could fill it up!!!

On my wanders, I found that the altitude was playing with me! I couldn't walk at my usual pace without becoming very breathless and at times I felt quite light headed, so I bought some tea that was recommended to help and made my way back to my hotel to rest up for a while - and write up my notes!

I'm looking forward to hiking the Cotopaxi Volcano tomorrow - albeit a little nervous about the altitude and how I will manage. After all, even walking too quickly to my bathroom is making me breathless right now!! :-O 
So far - I have to say I LOVE Ecuador. Everything about it. Let's face it, I think Soy Latina en mi corazon - I'm a Latin girl at heart. <3


Wednesday 7th August

The Cotopaxi Volcano

I rose early to get ready for the big hike today. Actually very small in distance, but very big in altitude and challenge. Because I could feel the effects of altitude just walking around Quito yesterday, I was a bit nervous about it.

I was collected at 7.30am and we drove to a lodge in the Cotopaxi National Park where we had a lovely breakfast of Pancakes, bananas and maple syrup. Then we stopped at a shop to buy the all important coca leaves and coca candy – and according to our tour guide, Carlos, the Ecuadorian chocolate was just as effective and tastes nicer! I tried all three just to be sure! And yes, chewing on the coca leaves was disgusting, but I wasn’t leaving anything to chance!

As we drove towards the Cotopaxi Volcano, we couldn’t see it as it was hidden by the clouds, but then magically, it cleared and the majestic mountain came into view. Everyone was taking photos through the dirty windows of the bus, so the driver stopped for us to all get off and take some clear shots!

We drove right up to park at 4,500 m and began our short but difficult ascent to the Jose Rivas Refuge which was our goal. For some of the more experienced with altitude, they went to the glacier - but those of us who were first timers were just happy to make it to the Refuge.

I had chewed on my coca leaf, eaten two coca candies and eaten some chocolate, but I could really feel the effects of the altitude. Just a few steps and I was breathless. The wind was ferocious and it was biting cold – around 2°C but felt colder with the wind. And the wind blew the dust into our faces and eyes – like being in a sandstorm. My heart was beating out of my chest and breathing was difficult. I took another coca candy but almost choked on it when trying to breathe and ended up swallowing it whole! It was also really difficult to drink water – for one thing, I didn’t have the breath to drink and for another, the water had got so cold in my backpack that the cold also took my breath away!

It was a case of take 10 steps and rest – I got into my flow and sometimes took a f few batches of 10 – I got up to 50 steps on occasions. But the constant rests to bring the breathing and heart rate under control were essential.

I actually fared rather well – although very breathless, I didn’t suffer any headaches or nausea thankfully. Several people were badly affected even to the point of vomiting and having to stop for several minutes. I’m so grateful I wasn’t one of them.

It wasn’t a long hike at all – probably only about 1.75km – but very steep with an elevation gain of 364m. And it was walking on volcanic ash – like a mixture of sand and gravel, which made it hard work too. And the wind did its best to blow us backwards! We had about 2 hours to hike up and back down again. It was such an amazing feeling to reach the refuge and have my photo taken with ‘the sign’ at 4,864m (15,953ft). I’m just mega cross with myself because I could have had my passport stamped, but I forgot! A mug of hot chocolate at the refuge was very welcome and then it was time to come back down.

The descent was tricky because not only was it steep, but because the ground was so soft, it was step – slide most of the way. And the wind this time was blowing us forwards making it hard to stay balanced. I've never been more thankful for my hiking poles - they really helped both going up and coming back down they saved me several times from falling.

On the way back, we had a lovely meal back at the lodge before the ride back to Quito.

A hot bath was in order to warm up (no aching muscles surprisingly) and wash away the dirt and dust and to relax and reflect.

What I’m taking away from this is that I coped admirably with the exertion at almost 4,900m which is higher than what I will face at Machu Picchu – although the distances on the Inca Trail will be much, much further. And I only had 2 full days of acclimatisation. So that’s good news!

Ready for a much easier hike to a volcanic lagoon tomorrow!


Thursday 8th August

Today was a really interesting day! Had to get up at 5.45am to get to the bus pick-up at Plaza Foch for 6.50. The other people on the tour were lovely and I made some really great friends – especially Sue from Australia and Toby from Switzerland.

On the way to the lagoon, we learned some more things about Ecuador – there are 14 different nationalities and languages left in the country from the pre-Inca days. There are also 84 volcanoes and 27 of them are classed as ‘active’. Guagua Pichincha is the volcano that towers over Quito, the capital, and it last erupted in 2019. Cotopaxi, the volcano I hiked yesterday last erupted only 4 years ago in 2015.

We stopped at a local market on the way and this was full of people dressed in traditional clothing selling everything from fruit and vegetables, to sugar, flowers, bread, rice and flour. And much more! The local cafes were serving breakfast of traditional food including potato patties and guinea pigs!

Then we visited a local indigenous home which was little more than a shack with a straw roof. There were guinea pigs running around inside and items that the owners had made for selling. It was tiny!

Next we visited a massive volcanic canyon – the Rio Toachi which was over 800m deep and the wind there almost blew us over.

Finally, we got to the lagoon, which was absolutely breathtaking. After taking lots of photos from the top, we began hiking down – stopping on the way for a photo with an alpaca. The lagoon was constantly changing colour as the clouds passed overhead – sometimes dark green and sometimes a vividly bright turquoise. The hike down was similar to hiking back down Cotopaxi – very slippery because of the loose gravel and dust. It was also very dusty and the wind blew the dust in your face and got in your eyes, up your nose and in your hair. And clothes became very dirty very quickly – volcano hiking is not an activity to undertake if you like keeping clean!

I teamed up with Toby for the hike down and when we got to the bottom we couldn’t resist the opportunity to go kayaking on the lake. We were short of time, but the hike back up was an hour to an hour and a half but a mule ride was about half an hour – so the decision was to go kayaking and then get the mule back to the top.

Kayaking on the lake was superb! Being out in a super green lagoon in the middle of a volcanic crater was just something very special. We had to wait ages for the mule back but there was no way I would have hiked it up in time to meet the rest of the group for lunch otherwise – as it was, we were late for lunch and only just managed to eat it before it was time to get back to the bus. The mules appeared to be very well cared for – not skinny but well covered and with healthy looking coats, otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted to ride – although I still felt sorry for them carrying us up that steep climb to the top.

A long bus journey back – once again very tired and very happy!


Friday 9th August

Mitad Del Mundo - The Middle of the World

Today started later with pickup at 11.15 so I had a very welcome lie in!
We rode on a double decker bus and I got a seat right at the front at the top so had a great view!

First of all, we went to the Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua which is a protected area around Pululuhua Volcano in the north of Quito Canton, Pichincha Province, Ecuador. It is 17 km north of Quito, in the northwestern part of the Pomasqui Valley. It’s an extinct volcano and the only one where families are allowed to live – there are 25 ancient families living on the volcano.

The views over the the reserve were amazing. Pululuhua means “smoke of water” or rain cloud and they collect water from the clouds through a process called “vertical rain”.

While we were there, I nipped into another museum, Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun) which was an amazing museum showing indigenous art and customs. There was a man and woman dressed in costume doing what I can only assume was a “sun dance”. I loved it!

Next we went to the city called Mitad Del Mundo which literally means the Middle of the World – as it spans the Equator. There is a great monument right at the centre which is 0° 0’ 0” and they have painted the Equatorial line so you can walk along it or have one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere.

It’s a really small world – I was in the queue to go to the top of the monument and see the exhibitions and there was a couple in front of me who were the same couple in front of me in the queue for the mules at Quilitoa yesterday! So we pronounced ourselves “queue buddies”. They were really nice – from Brazil and they spoke really good English.

The monument, the views from the top and the exhibitions were amazing – extremely educational showing the different regions of Ecuador – from the Galapagos Islands, to the coast, to the Amazon rainforest, to the Andean mountains. There are 24 provinces in Ecuador, most of which are named after volcanoes.

At the monument, I got my passport stamped so my visit to the Middle of the World has been recorded!

Then it was time for Ecuadorian lunch – empanadas with white corn and chicken and coffee. Followed by a locally made chocolate ice cream, which was delicious. It was a lovely warm, sunny day, so it was great to sit outside and then explore the square which was charming.

And then some shopping! OMG! I could have easily bought EVERYTHING! I’m already struggling with too much for my case – I may well have to buy a carry on case as that will hold more than my backpack. And hope that I can get away with my backpack (which is quite small) as my personal item!!

The locally produced blankets, scarves, ponchos and even hammocks are so vibrant in colour and so soft – mostly made from alpaca wool. I couldn’t resist buying a poncho, some T shirts and of course a load of fridge magnets!!
On the way back, we went through the Centro Historical, and saw the majestic Basilica.

Quito is made up of the old town in the South of the City with the Centro Historical and the new town known as Mariscal Sucre, located in the North of the City. I’ve been staying in the new town which is very modern but tomorrow, when I join my travel group for my Galapagos and Peru adventures, I move to the old town.

Quito is massive! It has 2.5 million inhabitants and they aren’t squashed into lots of high rise flats so the City is spread over a very large area.

There is so much to see and do in and around Quito that I don’t think you could do it all even if you spent a month here!

SALSA!

After I got back from my trip, it was time for something to eat and then shower and get ready for a night of dancing!!

One of my ambitions is to dance salsa (and/or bachata) in as many places around the world as I can, so I had checked out a salsa club not too far away. 

I booked an Uber ride - a whole $2.58 there and the same back again!!

As I walked into the club, I immediately felt at home - a huge dance floor with people dancing the cuban salsa that I'm more familiar with. 

I went to the bar and bought a bottle of water, and took everything in.  Normally, I have to observe for a while and pick out some guys that I feel brave enough to ask to dance.  Then pluck up the courage and go for it.

This time, I didn't have to!  I had only taken about a couple of sips of my water when a guy asked me to dance! Yay!  And then another - I had 4 dances in a row.

Then I realised, they were all wearing the same T-Shirts and were 'taxi-dancers' who make a point of dancing with everyone.  This also meant that it was easy to identify who to ask if I wanted to dance to a particular track.  See the video on the left to see me in action!

I had THE BEST NIGHT EVER!

Although - I have to say, that dancing at altitude is harder work than dancing at sea level, and I got quite breathless quite easily!

Saturday  10th August

Today was checking out of my fancy hotel and checking into the hotel in the old town and joining the group I’m travelling with for my Galapagos and Peruvian adventures.

It was also facing the challenge of getting my washing dried – which was achieved through the use of the iron and hair dryer!

My next hotel isn’t luxurious like the Hilton was, but it’s lovely – and has a much more Equadorian feel to it. I also met my roomie for my travels – a lovely lady of a similar age from Australia.

After our welcome briefing, we went on a walking tour of Ecuador with our guide, David. We visited the Basilica, which was built when the Spanish conquered the Incas. We learned more about the history of the battles with the Conquistadors and then in the 19th Century, when Ecuador gained independence from Spain.

In fact, today – 10th August marked one of their ‘Independence Days’ when they first gained independence. The Spanish later took it back so there is a second Independence Day on 24th May when the Ecuadorians finally succeeded in gaining their freedom. So today, there have been lots of celebrations and street parties – particularly in the plazas.

Other things I’ve learned about Ecuador. Because it’s on the same fault line that runs down the West Coast of Canada and the US, and because of the volcanoes, Ecuador gets around 3-4 earthquakes per month. The Virgin of El Panecillo, also known as the Virgin of Quito from the sculpture of the same name, is a monument located on the top of the hill of El Panecillo, a loaf-shaped hill in the heart of the city and serves as a backdrop to the historic centre of Quito. The Virgin is said to protect Quito from the earthquakes.

Because of the biodiversity of the four regions of Ecuador – the Galapagos Islands, the Coastal Region, the Amazon Rainforest and the Highlands, Ecuador produces many varieties of foods and flowers. It produces 95% of its food and only imports 5%. It is also the biggest exporter of roses and bananas are also a major export.

As part of the tour, we visited a market where they made traditional ice-cream – you could see them making the ice-cream by hand using traditional methods. And we had a tasting session of the different flavours made from the local fruits. Delicious!

After our walking tour, we visited a restaurant and sampled some typical Ecuadorian dishes, which were so tasty.

Then it was back to the hotel to pack for our journey to the Galapagos Islands tomorrow.

Sunday 11th August

Bye bye Quito - Hello Galapagos

This morning we were up at the crack of dawn for a 6am bus pickup to take us to the airport. 
 
Then it was a 9am flight – first to Guayaquil to drop off some passengers and pick more up and then onto Isla San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands. The flight was amazing. First of all, leaving Quito was spectacular as we flew over the Andes – something I missed flying in as it was dark. This time, it was possible to see peak after peak, volcano after volcano including the mighty Cotopaxi rising up through the clouds. 

Landing at San Cristobal brought us back to palm trees, sandy beaches and turquoise waters, with volcanic rocks rising up out of the water. We were processed at immigration, having to pay $100 for entry – a tax that pays towards the conservation of the Galapagos Islands, although it felt like we were bribing them to let us in!! 

We were transferred to our hostel, Casa de Nelly, which is simple but clean and then had a briefing from our new guide, Cesar. The Islands are BIG on conservation and are moving towards the elimination of plastics and conserving energy as well as wildlife. We were instructed to re-use water bottles and refill them from a water dispenser. There were also rules about the wildlife – no using flash photography and there was a 2 metre rule to keep a distance from any of the animals. 

We first went on a walking tour of the town, past the harbour and within minutes saw many sea lions – just lying around everywhere! On the beach, on the rocks and even on the pathways. We also saw a blue footed booby, a mockingbird and bright red crabs – lots of very large ones scampering about the rocks. 
Then it was time to be kitted out with our snorkelling gear before having a break for lunch.

After lunch, we were picked up and taken to another beach where we were to have a practice at snorkelling. On the way, we saw black dragon iguanas, a yellow warbler bird which was a bright yellow colour, lava herons and Galapagos pelicans.

Then we got into our wetsuits, donned our masks and fins and got into the water – which was cold at first but ok once in. We practiced breathing through the snorkels and working with the fins and at first I found it difficult to trust the breathing through the snorkel, but once I relaxed, I got into the swing of things. Then we headed out a bit further to sea.

What an amazing gift we were given! We saw many different types of colourful fish and a playful seal came and teased us blowing bubbles at us! Then, we got the highlight of all highlights – sea turtles! Green Pacific Sea Turtles to be exact. Lots of them! And big ones! We must have seen about a dozen or more and they came really close to us. One large one even swam right underneath me and was no more than a foot away from me. 

We also saw a couple of diamond sting rays! The funniest sight was watching a baby sea lion playing with a turtle. The sea lion was nipping at the tail of the turtle and the turtle turned around and nipped the sea lion on its flipper! So funny!
It was so incredible swimming along with such a variety of sea life and they were just doing their thing and taking no notice of us at all, allowing us into their world. 

Amazing! 

When we stopped, and got back to the beach to change, it was drizzly and windy and we were freezing so thankful to get back to shower and change before heading out to dinner. 

This has been an incredible first day on the Islands and a wonderful introduction to snorkelling and the amazing sea life here. 


Health Overview

This has been an amazing week and my cold thankfully disappeared.  

Although I have no health measurements in terms of weight or blood pressure, I have been feeling absolutely great!  The day at the Hot Springs did me the world of good!

The great thing is that, despite breathlessness, which is normal at this altitude, I haven't suffered from any symptoms of altitude sickness.  No nausea or headaches, just a tiny bit of light-headedness at times.   I am so happy about that!

Preparation This Week 

Lots of walking and at altitude this week.

First of all, the trip to Papallacta took me to the highest altitude I've ever been to - and the tiny little hike got me huffing and puffing.  Then I felt out of breath just walking around Quito. 

But the real challenge was hiking Cotopaxi and I felt I coped with that really well. 

Add in Quilotoa and the excursion to Mitad del Mundo and I've done plenty of preparation this week. 

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