Quito

One of the high points of a city at almost 3000 meters altitude

It’s a sprawling valley city surrounded by steep hills and mountains and whose main feature is a very clean and well preserved old town. There are cops everywhere, somewhat like Colombia, which lends at least a false sense of security. This section is inclined, and the steepest cobblestone lanes are reminiscent of Bogota’s Candelaria hood. The massive Basilica is the most prominent cathedral of many, and the relaxing Plaza Grande offers a fine place to sit, gaze at the National Palace and get your shoes shined.

El Panecillo framed between the cathedral spires

kilometer to the South sits El Panecillo, a big hill topped with a giant angel statue. It’s a good walk or a cheap taxi to the top, with a terrific view and scores of vendors. From here it’s striking how mountainous this area is, but the highest peaks are often obscured by clouds.

 

A couple of nice parks and 15 blocks to the north sits the Mariscal neighborhood, home to most of the better chain hotels and heaps of hostels. The area surrounding Plaza Foch is ground zero for tourist nightlife in Quito, but my general impression was cheap beers, karaoke, and vomit. It does get packed and there are scores of bars and discos, but the theme remains the same. Miles of wandering and exploring yielded a tremendous Chinese restaurant, Casa China, but zero bars that were anything special. With the galaxy of extraordinary hiking and landscape so close by, the capitol is a fine place to start, but not too long. The Ecuador countryside is eye popping, but the cities and towns not so much. There’s also a gondola that climbs to the top of a hill that has to provide a smashing vista, but two days in Quito is plenty.

 

Montanitas

The surfer statue marks the north end of Montanitas, Ecuador

That 6am bus came a few minutes early, before sunrise, and after consulting the driver to make sure I was on the right bus, I loaded up. Of course, it was the wrong bus, which took a very circuitous route, picking up lots of mountain folk, before arriving in Riobamba at 8. Here, the conductor made an exchange with a driver from another company whose bus was indeed bound for Guayaquil, just not direct, or even close, as what I had paid for. So began a lengthy, slow, but very scenic crossing of the Ecuadorian Andes, with vast, deep valleys and beautiful steep landscape. We made about 30 quick stops en route, picking up and dropping off passengers, many of whom were indigenous with emblematic hats and dress. Eventually we dropped down out of the highlands and traversed a couple of hours of lush tropical terrain, the last section being miles of banana plantations, and shortly thereafter we rolled into the massive dusty sprawl of Guayaquil.

The bus station was modern, adjacent to the airport, full of shops and food like a mall, and packed to the gills with people trying to get to Montanitas, my destination too. The lines to buy tickets were so long that it was hard to tell where they started….just a couple of hundred people that way. Once I found the single ticket window selling the route I needed, the waiting began. South Americans are used to waiting, so people obediently stand in line as long as it takes. And it took a while, over an hour and a half, until a bus company employee came up and solicited passengers for the 4:30 bus, still 2 hours away. I jumped at the chance, thinking that the desired 3 pm departure would sell out. So 10 minutes later I was freed from the line and ready to kill some time.

Downtown Montanitas

That 4:30 bus was packed and semi cush, blasting a stupid American movie and racing the sun to the coast. Upon arrival in Montanitas, after a few questions I found Hotel Sumpa, where I had a reservation. Of course it was New Years Day and the town was overflowing, so the hotel was sold out. After some interrogation of an employee I got the owner on the phone and he came to meet me in minutes. Nice enough guy, name of Aristede, and he had had a few problems with booking.com., along with others, and later, myself. He offered to put us up in the TV room, free of charge, and since I was saving $75 I didn’t mind. Especially since the place was swarming with assorted surfers and millennials, and was nowhere as nice as it looked on the web page. Ensued a night of sleeping on the sofa, getting up to turn off lights and close doors after knuckleheads obliviously leaving them open and on, and finally passing out into a deep idiot sleep.

The Punto Verde eco hostel from the beach, a fine place to stay on the cheap

Up and out next morning and up the hill to the eco hostel Punto Verde, high on a hill on the way out of town. The owner, Joos, is a Dutch woman who traded her Amsterdam barge boat for this property, sight unseen. And she is a trip, running around doing all sorts of chores and construction, laughing, smoking, and drinking. She has plans to enlarge and improve the place, and she’ s already done a ton, including building one big dwelling from scratch which holds all the bunks, a real nice deck, and her place and kitchen downstairs.

She had a Slovenian volunteer named Greecia, a real good dude who was a surfer and quite a music freak and hound dog to boot. Most of these hostels work on the system of very few paid employees, but always a traveler or two willing to trade some labor for a couple of weeks of lodging and meals. Here, all the bunks had mosquito nets and the floors creaked like crazy, but the sound of the surf 10 foot minutes away was always there. It didn’t take long to figure that this was the place we had been waiting to find, close enough to get to town and the playa quickly, and far enough to lose the incessant pounding of the disco scene. I highly recommend this place.

The neighborhood around Punto Verde is seeing lots of development

The next days followed a pattern of beach time early and a walk through town for a licuado breakfast and a look around. Then it was a wander around and a bus ride someplace close. Then a siesta, shower, and session to get into the night mood. One solid day trip was a ride up to Puerto Lopez an hour north, along with a visit to pretty Playa Frailes, a reserve that was the best beach of Ecuador for me. The terrain all along this coast is reminiscent of Baja California, dry with heaps of cactus and a few iguanas.

Frailes Beach has a small coral reef off that point in the distance

After the initial inundation, the town cleared out but then seemed to get busier again every day. lots of wandering, sunburned vagabonds, along with hordes of tatted out gypsies selling trinkets and their typical shit. Some nights were totally dead with nothing going on, but the scene was a late one, not happening until near midnight. At that hour I was usually back on the hill, unconscious on the top bunk. Not a lot to offer but the beach, killer ceviche and a chill vibe, but if that’s what you’re into, you could a lot worse than Montanitas.

My daily meal in Montanitas, ceviche and a banana smoothie

Banos

This is the best and most bodacious double zip line I’ve ever seen, outside Banos

From Machachi, the small town closest to the Hidden Garden, this was a 2 hour bus ride that culminated in a 2 minute piss when we finally got to the terminal. Then it was the fist of several $1 taxis to the Casa de Molino Blanco, where another dorm room awaited. First stop after unloading was the ballyhooed Terma de la Virgen, beneath a skinny waterfall at the other end of town. The place was overrun with humanity, and too many kids, and the water in the hot pools the color of a Yoohoo chocolate soda. So I was less than impressed, and we split after a few minutes in the nasty water. Lunch at the recommended Casa Hood followed, a decent yellow Hindu Curry, followed by the first of many exploratory town rambles. Banos is a hilly town, surrounded by super steep mountains, and a mecca for hiking, biking, and rafting. We found a bar called Pipa’s, run by a Dutch lush named Nina. Mully tried to sell her his old I phone, we met her Ecuadorian musician painter husband, and drank as long as we could stand it.

There’s a quite active volcano, Tungurahua, dozing up above Banos

The highlight of the Banos experience is riding a mountain bike on the 7 waterfall route. The road passes out of town alongside an impressive gorge, and through half a dozen semi lengthy tunnels on the way, but bikes only deal with one. This gorge widens and deepens as the downhill roll continues, and soon the first, and by far the best, of a series of cross canyon zip lines is reached. Strapped in by the legs and chest, flying like an eagle two at a time , this traverse lasts almost a minute each way, and the price is right…..$15 for the roundtrip. I saw the famous Skytrek in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and that was half as long and twice as expensive. A number of inferior versions followed, along with multi person cable cars, and some of the bike routes that circumvented the tunnels passed through some fine terrain. By far the most impressive waterfall was the massive ‘ Chorro del Diablo’ that featured a long walkway, terraces, and suspension bridges accessing a thunderous gusher dropping 40 meters. Ride as far as you like, cross the road, flag down a bus and get a ride back to town for a buck and a half.

The landscape of Ecuador is unsurpassed, this is outside Banos

Banos is quite a holiday destination for the Ecuadorians, and the town was swelling on New Years Eve. Lots of folk had mannequins and figurines adorning their cars, and bands of dudes dressed as women stopped traffic with ropes stretched across the road scrounging for donations. All this tomfoolery climaxed as the night continued, with thousands of people, dressed up or not, milling around the center, drinking, yelling, and everybody checking it out in a feverish end of the year ritual. I checked out of the frenzy early, as I had a 6 am bus to catch across the Andes.

Cotopaxi & Secret Garden

Cotopaxi is often shrouded in clouds

The closest town to Secret Garden, and the mighty mountain, is Machachi, about an hour south of Quito. There it’s a slow 45 minutes on a prehistoric stone road to the ‘best hostel in Ecuador.’ It’s surrounded by cherry farmland and cows, along with 3 Llamas out front. A dead volcano rises up behind the cluster of buildings, which is the main lodge, some cabinas, 2 dorms, and the owner’s cush pad above the rest. The staff here was super friendly and helpful, and the volunteers were from Australia and England, spending a few weeks here on the ramble while traveling the continent. A big Brit, Eddie, led a 45 minute hike up a close gorge to a couple of 10 meter waterfalls along with a beaut Dalmation, Milo and an energetic Dachsund, Daisy. The top section was sporty and slippery, scaling some rocks with lots of exposure and vertical.

Rubber boots are handy for this terrific hike up behind the Secret Garden

http://secretgardencotopaxi.com/blog3/

The communal meals were simple but hearty, and there was unlimited coffee, tea, and water. Many of the guests were here to climb or at least get close to Cotopaxi, directly to the west but constantly covered by clouds.There was even a gas heated hot tub, which I enjoyed with 4 nubile college chicks from Boulder, Colorado. The dorm had a wood stove, which got toasty that night. It may not be in a class by itself, as the saying goes, but it sure don’t take long to call roll.  Superior, and a great vibe.

Secret Garden Hostel, a couple of bus hours south of Quito

Next morn was an early breakfast and loading into a van bound for Coto. The trip took an hour and a half, and the big parking lot was filling up on a Sunday. This was already 4000 + meters in altitude, and everybody piled out and began slogging up the pumice. The refugio, the climbers hut, was the goal, about 500 meters up, and Mully was bent in two, using two walking sticks to yank himself up the hill, a gruesome sight. Eventually, he made it to the shelter, and I followed the drivers wife as she led the way another 200 meters to the bottom of the glacier. The snow and ice looked ultra thick and intimidating, and I would not look forward to scaling that even with crampons and an ice axe. The clouds lifted, the rain and corn snow stopped, and the landscape was multicolored red, black, white and every shade of grey.

Views from the slopes of Cotopaxi are eye popping

The trip down was easier for sure, and the views almost reached the other side of the big valley and SG. The last morning the clouds briefly shifted and Coto revealed herself in full, with a snowcap that seemed Everestesque, an amazing sight. $35 a night got 3 squares and a cush place to flop, and most of the outings cost the same…Of course, as time marches on prices keep going up. But no matter the number it’s a fine stop on the road to Utopia.

Ready to take the cool plunge