Ecuador: Isinlivi, Otavalo + Cotacachi

We sadly waved good-bye to the Galapagos Islands and flew back to Quito. After a quick night at our old hostel, we left first thing in the morning on a mission to visit our New Zealand friends Liz and Alex. Our journey to the Cotopaxi region south of Quito consisted of three bus rides totaling eight hours on mostly slow, windy roads up into the beautiful Andean countryside.

I mentioned in an earlier post how so much of our time spent in Ecuador could be summed up by relationships. True to point, our last week was all about spending time with friends we’d connected with earlier on our trip. The beauty of having a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants schedule is that our plans are flexible enough so when friends invite us to come and visit them, it’s easy to say yes.

Isinlivi: Hostal Llullu Llama

We spent three days in Isinlivi, a small mountain village high up in the Andes, with Liz and Alex while they volunteered at the lovely eco-lodge Hostal Llullu Llama. Yes, that is the most excellent name ever, isn’t it?

We had good fun reconnecting with these two. We pulled them away from their volunteer duties long enough for us to go on a few hikes together (along with Balu, the hostal’s enormous St. Bernard) and relax in the on-site spa. They have been backpacking around South America for six months and we’ve been to many of the same places, so our stories are endless and quite entertaining. They are also traveling to Colombia next so we spent a good amount of time reading guide books and talking about the next leg of our journeys. We will definitely spend some time in Colombia together.

Literally in the middle of nowhere, Llulla Lama is a full-service hostal which means they offer a three-course dinner and a hearty breakfast because there aren’t any restaurants in the tiny village of Isinlivi. We really enjoyed the community aspect in that all the guests ate meals together, sharing travel stories while passing big bowls of delicious food. We gathered around the fireplace in the cool evenings, watched stars in the dark sky and really appreciated the beautiful Ecuadorian landscape.


We left Llullu Llama early on a Friday morning to head north to Otavalo. Our first stop of the day was to visit the famed Quilotoa Lake. Situated at nearly 13,000 feet, the two mile wide crater lake is quite the sight to see…. even on a cloudy day. We were reminded of our beloved Crater Lake in Oregon, which we explored almost one year ago on our road trip across the US.


Liz took this picture on a different day. Impressive!


Otavalo: Market Day

Eight hours and several buses later, we arrived in Otavalo, north of Quito. A city of 90,000 with a large indigenous population, Otavalo is famed for its huge Saturday market. A third of the town actually transforms into stalls selling everything from hand-woven textiles, jewelry, musical instruments, leather goods, raw foods and imported items like clothing and shoes. Many of the stalls also sold pretty indigenous clothing like blouses, skirts and colorful hair ribbons. Of course there was a huge selection of food carts and fresh juices as well.

We started the day at 6:00 am by visiting the animal market where bulls, cows and pigs were being showcased and sold on a dirt-packed parking lot. There were smaller animals like guinea pigs (dinner, anyone?), chickens and goats for sale on many street corners. The hustle and bustle was entertaining and fun to observe. We were especially fascinated watching people line up to drink fresh goat milk that was milked to order, straight from teat to cup. Ummmm fresh!

We spent most of the day walking up and down the streets taking it all in. The market was, for the most part, clean and orderly. We had vendors say hello to us, but largely we were left alone which was a welcome change from the incessant hawkers common in many of the other markets. We had a wonderfully stimulating day and I now have a beautiful South American necklace (my only souvenir!) as a reminder of our 10 months down here.


Cotacachi: Cowboy Festival 

Cotacacachi is only a 30 minute bus ride from Otavalo, which just might make that our shortest bus ride in South America! Our American friends Sandy and Tayo, whom we met on the Ecuadorian coast in Olón, were waiting for us with open arms at the bus terminal. It was so fun to see them again. I don’t think we stopped talking all day.

Sunday happened to be the Cowboy Festival, complete with a horse parade down main street and a (gentle) bull fight in the outdoor arena. It was fun to see the locals in all their cowboy splendor.

Tayo made us guacamole for dinner, and we all had a big laugh when Harry and Sandy went to the store to buy chips and inadvertently came home with a huge bag of cheese puffs. Who knew you could buy cheese puffs in Ecuador? They were good in that tasty-but-gross kind of way. Then the power went out, so we ended up eating cheese puffs and guacamole — an interesting and quite tasty combination — by candlelight. We discussed at length the political and social differences between Ecuador and the US. We truly enjoyed our 20 hours together! We were so appreciative of their hospitality, friendship and the endless hot water in the shower.


Up Next: Colombia (Not Columbia) 

Ecuador: Galapagos Islands

Last year my father-in-law visited the Galapagos Islands and he said it was one of the best trips he’s ever taken. Since we were already in Ecuador, he encouraged us to make it part of our travels. He generously gifted us the excursion so we could experience the magic of the Galapagos. Thanks, dad, we are so grateful!

The Galapagos are an archipelago of 20 volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was largely formed by his time spent on the islands. The Galapagos are special for numerous reasons, including the large number of endemic species and the protections put into place beginning in the 1930’s. It was amazing for us to observe the abundance of wildlife in their natural state. Since the animals live without the threat of humans, they are amazingly fearless in the close proximity of people. This allows for exceptional observation not found in most other places.

We loved spending 10 days in the Galapagos. The first five days we were on our own to explore Isabela and Santa Cruz Islands. Our last five days we indulged in the luxury of a boat, visiting numerous islands uninhabited by man. We found this combination to be an ideal way to experience the islands.

Blue-Footed Boobie

This guy won best in show.


Isabela + Santa Cruz Islands

There are numerous activities one can partake in without needing a tour group or a guide. We walked along miles of coastline, swam at quiet beaches, spent hours watching the crabs and black land iguanas co-mingle, and visited the turtle breeding center. We hung out with other backpackers and simply enjoyed the breathtaking beauty of the islands.


Los Tuneles Snorkeling

This awesome day trip consisted of an hour boat ride each way, speeding way out into the Pacific to reach our destination.  We snorkeled in and around lava formations with penguins, sea turtles, sea lions, sharks, rays and loads of other fish. Can you see the penguin behind my head? Whee!


Majestic Cruise

There were 16 of us on board the 117-foot long Majestic and we all had a fun time together. Our days were full with different activities designed to observe the wildlife from all angels like snorkeling, hiking, kayaking and walking along beautiful beaches. The landscapes on each island varied significantly. Our Ecuadorian naturalist was excellent and full of detailed information.  The food was delicious and plentiful. There was even fresh fruit juice or hot chocolate every time we came back onto the boat accompanied by salty snacks. We were spoiled —  and we enjoyed every minute.


We highly recommend visiting the Galapagos! Many of you have this destination on your Bucket List and I couldn’t agree more. If you have any questions, please ask, and if you’re looking for a travel partner we can probably work something out. Viva Galapagos!

Ecuador: Quito + the Pacific Coast

The six weeks we spent in Ecuador are best defined by relationships. We met so many wonderful people and developed long-lasting friendships, like with our new Cuenca family: Diana, Ines, John, Bill and Rodolfo. We also ran into people we’d crossed paths with before in other countries. The social aspect of Ecuador greatly enhanced our experiences as a whole.


Quito, at an elevation of 9,350 feet above sea level, sits on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The city has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas and we had a great time exploring as much as we could by foot. We were pleasantly surprised by how much we liked Quito.

We found Quito’s Central Mercado to be top notch. While it wasn’t the biggest we’ve seen, it was definitely the cleanest local market we’ve yet to visit. Like other markets, there were stalls upon stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers in addition to a large section of food prepared on site. There were also lots of juice stands with women busy making fresh juice to order. We ate lunch there a few times and I happily drank glasses of fresh juice before, during and after my meal of rice, avocado, fried plantains and spicy aji.

Quito street vendors sold crunchy treats like Lupini beans (similar to Lima beans) and chifles (green plantains) — both are thinly sliced, fried and tossed with salt. Adding spicy aji makes them even tastier. Yum!

We typically go on a “Free Walking Tour” when we arrive to a city, and Quito was no exception. Our guide was fantastic and entertained us for three hours with facts and stories about the history of Quito and Ecuador.

At the end of the tour we were approached by a couple from New Zealand, Liz and Alex, who remembered meeting us on a boat ride coming home from Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia…. more than three months ago! I’m normally really good with remembering people, but I drew a blank, which was totally awkward for a few minutes. Luckily Liz isn’t easily offended so we ended up laughing and grabbing lunch. The four of us spent much of our time in Quito together and we agreed that our paths would have to cross again at some point soon.

We also reconnected with our Australian friend Adrian, whom we hadn’t seen in six weeks. He volunteered with us at the Hilo Rojo school in Turjillo, Peru. We had a great time catching up with him in Quito. We introduced him to Liz and Alex and the five of us had a lot of fun hanging out together. We took the city’s Teleferico (cable car) up to 13,000 feet for an incredible view of Quito, ate lunch together at the local market, walked around old town and climbed up the towers of the basilica.


Ecuadorian Coast Beach #1: Canoa

We’d heard for a long time that the Ecuadorian coast was a special place and we were excited to check out some of its beautiful beaches… but of course, that would require another long-distance journey by bus. We left Quito, high up in the Andes, and took a bus eight hours down to the Pacific coast where we landed in Canoa.

Located on the central Ecuadorian coast, Canoa is a laid-back fishing village. We stayed in a hostel 200 yards from the ocean. We conveniently had to walk past a fresh juice cart every time we went to the beach, which meant I had my share of fresh mora (blackberry) juice. Blackberries are one of the many fruits grown in abundance in Ecuador, and it quickly became my juice de jour. Harry, of course, had his share of cerveza.

Canoa boasts 11 miles of beach, making it the longest stretch of beach in Ecuador. Since we were there in the off-season it was mostly desolate and we enjoyed having most of the place to ourselves.


Ecuadorian Coast Beach #2: Olón

Guess what we did when we left Canoa? We hopped onto a bus and headed south to Olón, another beach town. Well, to be specific, we actually had to use three different buses to go 144 miles along the coastline. The entire affair took us seven hours.

We were happy to be on the coast during low-season because Olón was a sleepy oasis with just a few cabanas decorating the beautiful, sandy beach. We stayed in a small hostel and Elizabeth, the owner, lived on the property. We really enjoyed the time we spent with her, and we were happy to help her with her English while we practiced our Spanish.

There were only two other guests staying in the hostel and they happened to be American. Sandy recently moved to Cotacachi, a small town in northern Ecuador, and Tayo came down to visit her for a few months. There were traveling around Ecuador for a few weeks, also enjoying the beautiful coastline. We had a few meals together and shared travel stories which included lots of big laughs. They invited us to come visit them at Sandy’s apartment if we were ever near Cotacachi. Meeting them definitely made our stay in Olón much more entertaining and enjoyable. We’d really like to see these two again!

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Next Up: Galapagos Islands