Greetings, Internet friendz. Normally I like to do these big recap posts after I've posted a lot of more specific ones, but hey, sometimes it's good to break your own routine, right? Soon I shall (hopefully) post some more in-depth ones on my outings to the Galápagos, Cuenca and Baños as well... stay tuned.
Unlike all of the other trips I've taken in the past few years, you could say my decision to go to Ecuador was pretty random. I was sitting in my kitchen with my friend Willow on a sunny Friday afternoon, freshly back from my weeklong road trip through Oregon, sipping some rosé and talking travel, when I got a text from my friend Cristina letting me know she and her husband would be having a baptism (and subsequent reception/party) for their daughter in her husband's hometown, Guayaquil. It ended with three of my favorite words and my favorite piece of punctuation (the exclamation mark, duh): "You should come!"
I had a few weeks of freelance already lined up for the summer and the baptism was nearly eight weeks away, so why not be a bit indulgent and jetset off for a big Ecuadorian party? And really, once you're dropping a good money on an airplane ticket, it's silly not to stay and travel for a bit longer, right?
Where I went
I was in Guayaquil for four nights, and the first day was spent trying to track down my luggage from Copa Airlines, which required both a trip to Copa's office in downtown Guayaquil and back to the airport, where I had to sneak in with a representative from another airline back into the baggage claim area to get my bag. During the days, I did some sightseeing, and at night, I spent it hanging out with Stefano, Cristina, and their families. There's not tons to do or see in Guayaquil, but I saw the dozens of iguanas in Parque Bolívar, strolled El Malecón (a developed section of the waterfront filled with cafés, monuments, parks, even a very small amusement park for kids), and wandered around Las Peñas and Cerro Santa Ana, two historic neighborhoods that are filled with brightly painted homes and cobblestone alleyways. I also visited the Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporáneo for a good look at some of Ecuador's cultural history and attempted to visit Museo Presely Norton but found there was nothing on display there! I also enjoyed a delicious meals at La Tasca de Carlos and the Hotel Continental and enjoyed a drink in the lovely Plaza Lagos in the northern suburbs.
When I started planning my Ecuador trip, I hemmed and hawed on whether or not I'd visited the Galápagos until a few days before I left when I decided to go for it and booked a flight. It's not a cheap place to visit, but from the research I'd done, I learned it was still possible to see a lot without taking a cruise. I did consider trying to get myself on a last minute cruise, but from what I'd read, I would need more time in my schedule to be flexible about which dates and itinerary I'd be able to get, and being solo, I wouldn't have a guarantee that I'd get to share a room with someone of the same gender (which, as a solo female traveller, is a little worrisome). I stayed in the Galápagos for 4 nights, taking 2 day trips (Isla Santiago and Isla Bartolemé one day, Isla Isabela the next) and using the 3rd to explore Isla Santa Cruz. Just getting to and from the airport is a journey in and of itself, so my first day on the island was spent situating myself at my hotel, arranging my day trips, making trips to the ATM (you pay for almost everything there with cash), and trying to find somewhere with decent enough WiFi to transfer some money into my checking account to handle the aforementioned ATM trips! While I didn't see nearly all there is to see in the Galápagos, it's an incredible place and I'm glad I got a taste of what's there.
Flight to Isla Santa Cruz, LAN, $350; Return flight to Guayaquil, TAME, $250 (I couldn't find a return ticket on the same airline, thus the two different airlines). Ferry from Isla Baltra (where the airport is located) to Isla Santa Cruz, $1. Bus from ferry terminal to downtown Puerto Ayora, $2.
I spent three nights in Cuenca, which was more beautiful and colder than I expected. To me, Cuenca looked like a mini-Madrid (and I love Madrid — I lived there for a year and a half teaching English way back in 2003-2004, so it has a very special place in my heart). I spent one day exploring Cuenca's gorgeous churches, museums, plazas and architecture and another doing a day trip to hike in nearby Parque Nacional el Cajas ($50, including guide, transportation and lunch).
Private shared mini bus to Cuenca from Guayaquil, $20
Getting to Baños brought back flashbacks of some of my longer, harder days of travel in Colombia and Southeast Asia, but despite trying to find some kind of faster private minibus, it seemed the only way I could there was by public bus, and so that is what I did/endured. Baños is definitely a bit of a "backpacker's ghetto," with every kind of outdoor activity and adventure sport available at the hundreds of vendors. However, while the architecture is fairly drab, there's a gorgeous church in the center of town, good international restaurants, and plenty to do in the surrounding area so I filled up my two full days there easily and enjoyably.
Bus to Riobamba, $9; bus to Baños, $1.50
I spent two nights in Quito, and enjoyed a solid day and a half to explore the city. I arrived midday from Baños (about a 3.5 hour bus ride) and set off to see the Old Town, including the incredible La Compañía de Jesús, a baroque church whose interiors are gilded with hundreds of pounds of gold. On my second day, I rode the TelefériQo to see Quito from 4100 meters above sea level, then attempted to visit the Museo Nacional, only to discover it was closed for renovations. I headed back to Old Town to wander through it again a second time more slowly, and visited the Museo de Arte Colonial instead. I had two OK dinners in the Marisal Sucre neighborhood where I was staying (which I don't totally recommend unless you are with others looking to party, in hindsight I think I would have preferred the La Floresta neighborhood nearby).
Bus to Quito, $4
Where I stayed
Guayaquil: Hotel Palace This is probably one of the better hotels I've stayed at in a long time, and that includes even fancier places like the W Hollywood. My friends recommended it, and while it caters to the business crowd, my room was enormous, the bed comfortable, the sheets soft and lovely and the bathroom well equipped. Also the front desk staff here was beyond attentive in helping me get my luggage from Copa Airlines and the hotel is well-located for both checking out the city on foot as well as hailing cabs. $85/night, incl. breakfast
Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos: Lonesome George Hostal This is a very reasonably priced, good value hotel in the Galápagos with a funky, bohemian feel. It's centrally located to the main strip running through Puerto Ayora with all the shops, restaurants and travel agencies, but set back from the hustle and bustle enough to be fairly peaceful. That said, the rooms were not well built and on the one day I didn't need to wake up at the crack of dawn for a day trip, I was wakened by the roar of the high efficiency washing machine kicking into gear and also treated to the sounds of guests in a nearby room getting amorous one evening. The room was also dark and the bathroom oddly designed and incredibly small. But, for the price, it was probably one of the Galápagos' better deals. $40/night
Cuenca: Hostal Macondo I loved this basic hotel set in an old building -- my room, while basic, was very comfortable, with a clean, nice bathroom, and there was a delicious breakfast served every morning included in the price. The hotel also arranged my excellent hike in the Parque Nacional de Cajas and was well-located for accessing all the sights in Cuenca. $25/night, incl. breakfast
Baños: Posada del Arte I had mixed feelings about this hotel. On one hand, it was in a quiet part of Baños and there was an amazing view of a waterfall outside my window. On the other hand, my room felt damp and mildewy and there was a giant mural of a cockroach painted on the wall opposite the bed (why???). I'm sure the humidity that plagues all the hotels in Baños, but the price for my room seemed a little too high, especially after I'd just had such good value in Cuenca. There was a delicious included breakfast in the café downstairs (which cost $7 if you were a guest coming in off the street) and it's run by a nice retired American couple from the Midwest. $37/night, incl. breakfast
Quito: Cayman Hotel Again, I felt I was overpaying a bit for the tiny room I had in this hotel, equipped with just a small twin bed in the corner. However, I was grateful it was fairly quiet what with the nightlife happening in the nearby plaza, and at least there was hot water, a clean bathroom, hangers in the closet ... you know, the basic stuff. I would recommend this hotel only if you got a bigger room 'cuz the single just doesn't seem worth it. $40/night, incl. breakfast