Enjoying Montañita’s vibes and waves

When we got on the bus to Montañita in Baños we were wearing sweaters underneath our warm jackets. However, the closer we got to our next destination, the more layers we could take off. Eventually we arrived, wearing shirts and shorts only, but were still sweating. In spite of that, we were super happy and excited, not only to discover Ecuador’s #1 party and surf town, but also, and maybe even more so, we were satisfied to be far, far away from our bed bugs invested beds in Salasaka. Originally, the plan had been to stay four nights which however eventually turned into eight. We enjoyed this place too much, we simply could not make ourselves leave earlier. So, what exactly did we do with all our time here? In fact, not altogether that much! We just went for strolls on the beach, worked some more on our tan, joined the crowd of surfers trying to catch some waves, ate lots of ice cream and chocolate croissants (check out the recommendations for details!) and did not waste too much time sleeping. All in all, we blended in quite perfectly with the rest of the backpacker crowd here, enjoying the laid-back Montañita life style with the undeniable hippie touch – and smell. Even after more than a week we had a hard time saying goodbye to this place and even more so to some really awesome people we had met there. Eventually though, after having postponed it various times, we successfully boarded a bus, headed towards our next destination: Quito.

When in Montañita
Where to sleep: Hostal Casa do Trasno is more a hotel than a hostel, and in fact, due to its cleanliness and bed bugs free beds it felt like heaven on earth to us. Also, it is just a few steps away from the beach and right in the middle of all the action in town: the restaurants, bars and clubs.
Where to eat & drink: We found the Peruvian restaurant “Brisa Sabores” on our first day here and thereafter returned every day to try some more of the delicious dishes on the menu. The owner is a really nice guy too – he knew us by name in the end and we even watched a Copa America game together.  For dessert, or breakfast, a sweet snack or whatever other reason to eat you can think of, definitely make sure to stop at the small bakery in the same street where also Brisa Sabores is located. They serve mouthwatering chocolate croissants that are well known by every chocolate lover in town. We went there up to three times a day – not exactly good to keep up the bikini body, but so worth it!
What to do: Try to catch some waves and also visit the close by town of Puerto Lopez to go on a whale watching tour. If you go there by yourself and organize the tour it is quite a bit cheaper than to do it in Montañita.

Quito – visiting the middle of the world

Ecuador’s capital might seem on first sight like just another big South American city, however, this one has quite some attractions. To start with, it is scenically surrounded by volcanoes like the famous Cotopaxi and also some other, more harmless but still beautiful mountains. Furthermore it has a picturesque old town area through which we strolled admiringly, exploring the various plazas, colonial buildings and markets. We furthermore climbed the frighteningly steep steps of Quito’s Cathedral to get a first bird’s eye overlook of the city. Despite that this was already impressive, we went on to conquer the 4050m high Cruz Loma to get an even more impressive view as our reward. For the more relaxed and injured, it is possible to take the cable car, the active ones can hike up. On the top, everyone meets again and there are some more smaller hiking trails to follow in order to see the city and its surroundings from all angles. Quito’s most famous sights, however, are its monuments of the Ecuator line. Yes, it’s not only one, but two. The main monument was built between 1979 and 1982, however, soon it became clear that the calculations were not entirely correct and that the real Ecuator line was 240m farther to the north. Thus, a second landmark had to be build. Visitors nowadays have a choice which Ecuator line they prefer to visit. We decided to visit the original Mitad del Mundo monument and will keep the second one for our next visit. The Ecuator is a special place and being there offers the opportunity to conduct some unique experiments. For instance, at latitude 0 (and as close as we were to it too) water flows without vortex, it is supposedly easier to build things due to increased balance and one weights less while there.
Only 3 hours by bus away from Quito is the famous market city of Otavalo. This place is a must for everyone who wants to see Ecuador’s biggest market and even more so for backpackers who still have room for souvenirs in their backpacks. We did not have any more empty space in ours, however, we still went. Thus, as we could not stop our shopping frenzy, we in the end had to buy an extra duffel bag each to store our “loot”. When we left for our next destination, with the new bags as well as our big and our small backpacks loaded up, we felt more like mules than backpackers. Nevertheless, we carried all our extra pounds with dignity and embarked on our journey with destination Colombia.

When in Quito / When in Otavalo
Where to sleep: If you are looking for an accommodation with a good location, friendly staff and affordable rates, the hostel Chicago could be an option. If you are tired of being all the time in cheap hostels, we have a great deal for you in Otavalo. Hostal Curiñan is more of a hotel rather than a hostel, and while the prices are still quite reasonable, the value for money is amazing. And a bit of luxury once in a while can boost every backpackers mood, or at least ours.
Where to eat & drink: Sushi Shibumi – a tasty sushi bar in Quito. In Otavalo, La Cosecha Coffee offers delicious coffee which helps you recharge your energy during a long shopping day on the markets.
What to do: Hike Cruz Loma for the best view over Quito, not only from the top, but already all along the way up. Also: visit the market in Otavalo, if possible on a Saturday. For us it was one of the best places to buy souvenirs we have found so far in South America.

Ups and downs in Ecuador’s central highlands

Our stay in the “Sierra” – that is what Ecuadorians call this region of the central highlands – was definitely full of ups and downs, and not only scenery-wise! Our first destination here was Salasaka. The Lonely Planet on Ecuador describes Salasaka as “a rather ugly town which you will notice to have arrived at when all men around you seem to be wearing the same black ponchos”. This is actually a very adequate and authentic description. Therefore, Salasaka is not on most backpackers “top-places-to-visit” list. However, it had made it on ours because we had signed up to volunteer at Salasaka’s Katitawa school. The head coordinator of the volunteer program had given us detailed descriptions on how to get to the school’s volunteer house – and these descriptions already promised some adventurous times as we were told to not only change buses multiple times but also eventually jump on the back of a pick-up truck which should take us along for the last bit of our journey. Surprisingly enough, that all worked out smoothly and so we could sooner than expected move into the volunteer house that looked rather like a construction site*.
During our time as volunteers we helped out in the garden, in the kindergarten, in classes during the day for the school kids and in classes at night for grown-ups who wanted to improve their English or learn some German. All the kids and locals were very friendly and open to us, so we got a good glimpse of the local way of living. Also, lucky for us, our fellow volunteers were all not only lovely people, but also pretty amazing and passionate cooks who ensured that we were well fed every evening.
Despite Salasaka’s not exactly overwhelming charm and beauty, its surroundings have a lot to offer for weekend excursions. For instance, Baños, which is just a 40min bus ride away, is one of Ecuador’s Meccas for outdoor adrenaline sports lovers and all fans of great nightlife. You can go rafting, canyoning or puentening (the local sport of jumping off a bridge and swinging under it), afterwards party all night and then start all over. The central highlands are also great for hiking and mountaineering. Lots of people hike up one of Ecuador’s most active volcanoes, the Cotopaxi (5890m). As we had already done our share of high mountain climbing for a while, we did not do that but instead went to see the turquoise Quilotoa lagoon where there are lots of opportunities for more modest hiking and you may see Volcano Cotopaxi in the distance, if the weather is on your side.

In spite of all these perks and definitively some highs, we ended up cutting our stay in Salasaka short because it turned out that we where not able to make friends or at least cope with our “other” fellow roommates named bed bugs, fleas and spiders who were getting way too “touchy”. Nevertheless, it was an experience that we surely won’t ever forget.

When in the Central highlands
What to do: Go rafting or canyoning in Baños for some proper adrenaline rushes!
Where to stay: Hostal Cañalimeña in Baños. Clean and bedbugs free beds plus friendly staff, what else can you wish for?
What to eat and drink: Have a delicious breakfast prepared with lots of love and served with great coffee at Dulces detalles in Baños.
What to do after a stay in the volunteer house: Have all your belongings chemically washed and disinfected at the lavandaria Magic, located in Pelileo, the neighbouring town just 20 bus minutes from Salasaka.

* That is, of course, only according to our opinion

Galapagos – following Darwin’s footsteps

The Galapagos were originally not on our travel itinerary because we thought they were only accessible for elderly people with way deeper pockets than us. However, as it turned out, they also welcome modest backpackers like us!
Our adventure started in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest and probably ugliest city, which nevertheless still receives some tourists, as it is the best place to book a last minute tour to the islands. Luck was on our side and so it only took us a day to find a reasonable last minute deal – and off we flew to paradise.
The Galapagos Archipelago encompasses more than 50 islands of volcanic origin of which just a few are open for tourists to visit. The still ongoing volcanic activities together with the secluded geographic location some 800 kilometers off the coast of the Ecuadorian mainland have made these islands a showcast of evolution as well as a living museum of some of the most extraordinary creatures inhabiting this world.
We started our island hopping tour on Santa Cruz, the main island, where already on the first day a highlight was waiting for us: we went to look for giant tortoises – and found some! To be fair, it wasn’t so difficult to track them down because they leave huge tracks and cannot really move too fast. Also, they are simply too gigantic to be easily missed. But still, we felt super lucky, as you might be able to see in our picture collection.
The next day we took a ferry to the biggest of the islands, Isla Isabela. This one just recently hit the news quite hot, as Volcano Wolf erupted spectacularly. Sadly, we were not allowed to get close enough to get a glimpse of it, but we still had an awesome time spotting flamingos and penguins as well as snorkeling with white-tipped reef sharks, giant rays, loads and loads of colorful fish, many very friendly sea turtles and of course the famous swimming iguanas. We also tried to hike up one of the islands smaller volcanoes, but on the way there Nicky tripped and messed up her ankle which quickly swell up to a size that expressed quite clearly that she would not be able to make it to the crater that day. In fact, she didn’t walk anywhere at all anymore that day, so Patrick had to carry her back until an ambulance horse came round for help. It turned out that the leg could still be used for snorkeling, so our exploration program could continue. Therefore, over the next days, we hopped on “our” boat Esmeraldas III to visit Isla Bartolome, Isla Plaza and Isla Santa Fe.
Each of these islands had its own special highlight and each of them was so very different from the others that we really got to understand quite well why the Galapagos where Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”: fauna and flora are simply incredible here! We saw cactuses grow next to mangroves and iguanas paddle side by side with penguins. We swam with sea lions that wanted to play with us, had to watch our step closely everywhere we went to not trip over one of the iguanas that were lazily chilling out and walked on picture-perfect beaches.
After 11 days, perfectly sun tanned and full of incredible and probably unforgettable memories, we boarded our plane back to the continent. However, the farewell will probably not be one for too long, there are simply too many more islands to explore! So we will be back for sure, but next time definitely with a scuba diving license!

When on the Galapagos
Where to sleep: Hotel Ninfa – we stayed here as it was included in our package and we totally enjoyed it! Awesome staff, great breakfast buffet, a pool and proper hotel style rooms, amazing for backpackers after 4 month of hostels! If you rather want to save the hotel money for excursions, there are also lots of budget options!
Where to eat & drink: Isla Isabela is famous for the local cocktail Coco Loco, make sure you have some! We also had a delicious “encocado de pescado” (that’s fish cooked in a rich coconut sauce) at the kiosco de Renato.
What to do: Make sure you see a couple of different islands, no matter if you choose island hopping or a cruise. We booked our trip with Ninfa Tours and were completely satisfied.