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

Ecuador: Cuenca, Baños + Misahualli

Ecuador: Facts + Observations

  • Ecuador is a small country (the size of Colorado), but it packs a punch! There are four diverse regions: Amazon Rainforest, Andian Highlands, Pacific coast and the Galapagos Islands. We explored all four regions.
  • The Panama hat is actually from Ecuador. Say what? In 1904 President Roosevelt was wearing an Ecuadorian hat when he visited the Panama Canal, and the media gave it the wrong name. The hats are still made in Ecuador.
  • Ecuador’s four major exports are oil, shrimp, bananas and roses. Yes, roses! Due to the equator, there’s natural light all year round which roses need to thrive, so they grow nice and tall. We were told that an Ecuadorian suitor should never buy his gal roses because they are such a “common” flower.
  • The traffic in Ecuador is relatively sane. The country as a whole wins the civilized traffic award based on driver courtesy and low horn usage. Note: the bus drivers still drive like maniacs.
  • Rafael Correa has been the president for the past 10 years. An economist by trade, he has reduced Ecuador’s debt significantly and invested heavily in education and infrastructure.
  • Buses work differently in Ecuador, making our bus rides even more challenging and annoying than normal. 1) Even though you buy a “direct” bus ticket, in reality there’s no such thing. Every bus will literally stop a million times along the way to pick up and drop off people. 2) The driver has a security wall behind him, which means that passengers cannot see out the front of the bus. This means I get car sick unless I take a Dramamine. 3) Vendors regularly get on and off the buses and walk down the aisles to sell their goods, like fried chicken, natural supplements, candy, sun glasses, and hot dogs.
  • We heard more stories about travelers getting pick-pocketed or scammed in Ecuador than in all other countries combined. Luckily nothing happened to us.
  • Ecuadorians love their ice cream! They eat it on foot, bikes, motorcycles and horses. You can buy ice cream from vendors in parks, on street corners and at traffic lights. Ice cream is to Ecuadorians as soup is to Peruvians.

Cuenca: Our First Stop 

Located in the Andes in southern Ecuador, Cuenca is a picturesque city with four rivers running through it. A major expat community, Cuenca offers a nice blend of local and international, old and new. Known to be Ecuador’s center of art and culture, Cuenca has a charming historical district, cobblestone streets, old colonial homes and over 50 churches. I was quite pleased to discover that Cuencans are in love with drinking hot chocolate made from Ecuador’s fine cocoa and milk.

Through Airbnb, we signed up to spend five days with Diana and her mother Ines in their old family home. What started as a rental quickly turned into a genuine friendship and we extended our stay to 10 days.

It was appealing for us to live with a family so we could experience Ecuador on a more intimate level. Additionally, we wanted to practice our Spanish, and what better way to do so than by living with a Spanish-speaking family? At times our Spanish felt fluid and graceful, while at other times (perhaps most of the time) it felt clunky and chunky. But laughter goes a long way and really, we did just fine.

On our first night in town, Diana, who is an artist, art teacher and hot chocolate addict, and her friend John drove us around and showed us all the local hot spots, including a giant swing (keep reading to find out more). This was a fun outing that included a visit to their favorite ice cream shop. We ended up spending a lot of time together that week. One memorable night we drank cheap whiskey and went out salsa dancing. We ate several meals together and we shared a lot about our lives in Ecuador and the US.

John is a big futbol (soccer) player and one night he invited us to join him for one of his games. Half the players on both teams were adults and the other half were kids, including Diana’s niece and nephew. The boys were not only young and fast, they also had great ball skills so we basically got schooled for an hour. It was a ton of fun and yes, we were very sore the next few days.

One Sunday Ines invited us to join her family at her “campo” (country home) about 30 minutes outside the city. There were 15 of us and we spent the leisurely day walking around the wooded property, eating heaps of food, drinking mugs of hot chocolate, practicing our Spanish and relaxing by the campfire.


You think you know someone… and then he climbs onto a big metal swing with nothing but a seat belt to hold him in place and swings like a giddy fool high above the city of Cuenca.

IMG_1868IMG_1870IMG_1874Harry was pretty pleased with himself!

These Guys

My Portland friend Beth e-introduced us to her friends living in Cuenca. Bill, a retired American teacher, and Rodolfo, an Ecuadorian tour guide, invited us over for a homemade dinner one night with their American teacher friends Karen and Dorothy. They gave us the insider scoop about Ecuador. We had so much fun and laughed like crazy at Rodolfo’s stories. On another afternoon we met to discuss our travel plans while indulging in the most fabulous mugs of hot chocolate ever made. These guys made our stay in Cuenca even more special than it already was.


Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park, only 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, is located in the highlands of Ecuador at 14,000 feet. The jagged landscape is covered with tundra vegetation. There are over 270 lakes and lagoons in the park. We spent one day hiking around the gem that is Cajas.


Baños: Adventure Capital of Ecuador

From Cuenca, we took one bus seven hours north and another bus one hour east to get to Baños. This cute town is surrounded by huge mountains on all sides. Many people come here to spend time and money zip-lining across the gorge, repelling down waterfalls and bungee jumping off bridges. We prefer our adventures to be a little more low-key, like riding bicycles on the highway next to trucks.

One day we rented some bikes and zipped down along the “route of the waterfalls”, a ride that took us on a busy road next to horses and big trucks. What a fun way to spend the day! Well, riding through a dark and scary tunnel wasn’t that fun, it was more like a total adrenaline rush. The 15 mile journey culminated at a majestic waterfall accessible only by hiking down into the gorge.


Misahualli: A Taste Of The Jungle

Taking Bill and Rodolfo’s advice, we made our way to Misahualli to experience the Ecuadorian jungle. It must be noted that the five hour bus ride through the mountains was just. plain. horrible. You get the picture.


Instead of embarking on a multi-day jungle tour, we opted to spend a few days in Misahualli where we got a taste of the jungle. We swam in the river and successfully avoided being eaten by a mysterious water creature (which surely exists). We hiked in the humidity up and down a muddy path to a waterfall that didn’t quite live up to its reputation, but we saw some magical butterflies along the way. We marveled at the beautiful jungle foliage and relaxed in the evenings listening to the sound of frogs and other creatures chirping and humming in the darkness.


As tempting as it was, we both decided not to eat grilled grubs on-a-stick, a jungle delicacy. However, we did like the way you could choose which wiggling grub you wanted to eat before it got speared and cooked.


Misahualli is known for the monkeys that hang out in the small village square and I was determined not to leave until I could take a selfie with a cute little guy on my shoulder. Ha! Little did I know that instead, I would be bullied and harassed.

Harry went into a store to buy our bus tickets while I stood guard over our backpacks, happily watching the monkeys up in the trees, silently begging them to come and play with me. All of a sudden one of them ran over, pushed me (aka: scared me) out of the way and jumped onto my backpack. Within seconds he had unzipped the top part of my pack. I was yelling at him to stop, but he just hissed at me (did you know that monkeys could hiss?), grabbed my notebook and threw it on the ground. As I worried about my safety and well-being, he reached in further, grabbed my book and ran away. What a little shit!

Harry returned three minutes later, disappointed that he missed the spectacle.


Up Next: Quito and the Ecuadorian Coast