The speed that we saw Ecuador return to normal after the “Paro” was surprising. The only evidence of the protest we saw were the scars on the roads from where tires had burned melting the asphalt and occasional smoldering tree trunks on the side of the road. Most of the tourists who were not bound by having vehicles in the country had fled. Once the roads opened, many of our fellow overlanders headed for the border as well. We had more of Ecuador to see and were betting on peace for the next few weeks.
Our first destination once we were free to roam was Quilotoa, a water-filled caldera over 800 feet deep, two miles wide and beautiful! When we arrived, we peeked over the edge to see the water below as a teaser for the next day and quickly found a place to stay. We chose a hostel that allowed overlanders to camp in exchange for eating in the restaurant. We met two other couples who were traveling with their own vehicles at that hostel. Two from Colombia in a van and two from France on motorcycles. There were no regular tourists. It was unique and a fun time to share stories of weathering the Paro. The dinner was lovely. The vegan version substituted avocado for the meat. Avocados are always welcome. A fun thing we have noticed for the first time in Ecuador is popcorn as a soup garnish. It gets soggy quickly but is very delicious.
The next morning, we tackled a full visit to Quilotoa. We had been in contact with some Colombian fellows we had met during our first days in Ecuador and knew they would be in the area. We saw their car parked up at the rim and figured they were camping down at the lakeshore. We headed down to see if they wanted to hike the rim with us. It was a serious descent. All of the people we passed who were on their way back up told us it was really hard to climb back out. I was skeptical. We found our friends chilling out by the lake. They chose to keep chilling out so we chatted for a while and hugged our goodbyes and headed back up to the top to hike the rim trail. It was hard to climb back up because the trail was mostly sand, but not as hard as everybody made it out to be. The biggest challenge for us was the elevation. We had been hunkered down in Baños at just under 6000 ft elevation for a couple of weeks. Quilotoa was at 12,800 ft. We decided to just take it slow and hope for the best. Our jaunt down to the lake and back up had us starting a little late on the trail. We really didn’t want to be hiking after dark because it gets immediately stupid-cold when the sun goes down. We did our best to keep our photo-ops and snack-breaks short as we walked around the lake. It started to rain/hail on us as we debated turning around or persisting on to finish the loop of the lake. I promised Scott we would make it back to town before dark and we headed on to finish the loop. It was an adventure and now I was under pressure to deliver on my promise. We ate our PB&J sammies while we walked, trying to keep them from getting soggy in the rain. Eventually, the weather lightened up and it was more smooth sailing. Until we had a choice to go right or left and I chose left. This took us way too far down from the rim only to have us scramble back up through some exposed crumbly rocks while very cute llamas looked on curiously. We stumbled upon a pair of pre-adolescents hacking at a park sign with machetes. When they saw us, they squeaked and ran around in circles. Once we were out of eyesight, but not earshot the hacking continued. We made it back to town just as the sky was turning colors. It was adult-dark by the time we arrived at our hostel for another bowl of popcorn soup. I’d say that was a promise kept.
From Quilotoa, we headed back down in elevation. All the way down. We were headed for the beach. Of course, we couldn’t get moving fast enough to make it to the beach in one day so we made a pit-stop in the town of Portoviejo. The town didn’t have much to offer tourists but it was conveniently located and there was a German ex-pat who had a brewery there. He let overlanders camp in exchange for buying his beer. This one was all on Scott since I had broken up with all forms of booze back in Nicaragua. He was happy to take one for the team. The owner seemed to be more excited to have people to talk at than to sell beer. I found his company distasteful. The conversation was mostly about his wealth. His classic car collection, every motorcycle he had ever owned, his illegal gun collection, his knife collection, his German sausage making equipment, his teak plantation, his rich friends and their various collections. He talked for hours while chain-smoking cigarettes and disparaging the Ecuadorian people as a whole. It was a blessing when he and his wife left for a date. They locked us in their compound for the night with a guard and a sweet German Shepard named Tor who was wearing an unbearable amount of cologne. The next morning, he let us know that he drank 40 beers before switching to liquor and still made it home alive. I was a bit traumatized by the whole encounter and was so happy when we left. We stopped at a Govinda’s restaurant for a vegan meal and juice. It was a nice palate cleanser from the night before and then we headed for the coast.
We camped on the beach in a tiny fishing village called Machalilla. The more touristy towns were further south but we liked the vibe of this one. The only problem was that they didn’t sell fruits and vegetables. At all. Well, on Saturday mornings there was a market that had some but it was mostly a meat market. Their cookie-and-cracker game was on point though. It was a great spot to chill for a while. In the mornings, dolphins would swim by very close to shore and it never got hot nor cold.
Just south of town was Parque Nacional Machalilla and within that park was a beach with a reputation for being the most beautiful in all of Ecuador. We decided to check it out. It was really pretty. We took a taxi to the beach and walked most of the trails in the park. PN Machalilla is in a tropical dry forest. We were especially delighted to be hiking through groves of palo santo trees. The smell was intoxicating. We walked the beach until a ranger told us the park was closed and needed to be quick about our exit. We promised not to dilly-dally and walked all the way back to our camp.
While we were there we also took a boat tour out to Isla La Plata. It is known as a poor man’s Galapagos. It was a far cry from the wonder that I imagine the Galapagos to be, but in its own right, it was wonderful. The star of the show was the blue-footed booby. They were adorable! They like to nest in the wide open and they protect their nest from mammalian predators by projectile-pooping a ring of acidic guano around their nests. The males whistle and the females grunt. They trade off days of nest-sitting and chick-care. Really, they are the best birds. A close second was the magnificent frigate birds. Sometimes they are called robber-birds because of their propensity to torment other birds in flight to the point that they barf up the contents of their stomachs. The robber-birds are at the ready to catch that barf as it falls to the earth. I’ve seen it in action. Nature is weird. We also got to see green sea turtles and snorkel in water that was too cold to really enjoy. Normally, breeching whales are also an attraction but we were a bit too late in the season.
Once we left the warm embrace of the Pacific we headed up, up, up to Parque Nacional Cajas. We arrived just as they were closing for the day and got ourselves settled into a cozy corner of the parking lot to sleep for the night. We could have stayed in cots in the refugio there but our tent was the warmer option. We did make use of the kitchen in the refugio and chatted with the one other tourist staying there. The next day we headed out in the rain to explore the park. It was exceptionally cold. Also, exceptionally beautiful. The park is covered in tiny lakes with streams and waterfalls. There are about 270 lakes within the 100 square miles of the park. We hiked until the rain infiltrated our jackets and the mud seeped into our boots. I really enjoyed having the heater in the truck blast my feet all the way to our next stop.
In Cuenca, we did what we do when we go to cities. We ate. We found a couple of really good ramen restaurants. Cuenca is a hotspot with North American ex-pats so there are a lot of services that make them feel at home. Restaurants cater to retiree palates, stores carry more of the exotic grocery items… like peanut butter and there is a ton of medical facilities advertising in English. We visited a modern art museum, a Panama hat museum, a dairy product festival, and more restaurants than we should have. It was a fun break from the road but we were ready to get back to exploring mother nature sooner than later.
Our final nature stop in Ecuador was at Parque Nacional Podocarpus. The Podocarpus is the only conifer native to Ecuador and if it can be found in the park, I don’t know where. We didn’t see any conifers. We didn’t see much, actually. The rainy season was just beginning in Ecuador and the park was socked in with clouds at the higher reaches while we were there. We hiked a trail called the Mirador Trail. It was named after all of the beautiful views to be had. We saw the inside of many clouds. Once we got a little lower we could see some views that gave us a hint as to what all of the fuss was about. When we got done with our hike we headed back downhill towards the town of Vilcabamba. Scott chose to get a little more exercise on the way down.
Vilcabamba is one of those blue zones on the planet where people live an exceptionally long time. Apparently there used to be more centenarians there in times past but these days people are kicking the bucket at more typical ages. Now it is a kind of hippie haven for visiting gringos. Scott came down with a head cold while we were there so we stayed a couple of extra days for him to recover. We enjoyed vegan delights at the hippie restaurants and as soon as Scott was up for it we made a beeline for the border with Peru!