Cotopaxi calling, the delights of Banos and some butterflies… Getting finished with Ecuador

“I have never met anyone Irish whilst travelling who doesn’t build their entire persona around being Irish”. So spake someone or other in one of my most recent travel books- But actually it’s a sentiment I sometimes find myself agreeing with. As soon as someone comes into the hostel giving it the whole topofthemorningtoyagoodcraic bollocks I always find myself reaching for the invisible rocket launcher.

This guy was a prime example. Having extended my stay in Cotopaxi by another night, one of the new arrivals was him. This type does not react well to the cocked eyebrow of the natural cynics like me who don’t engage with their nonsense. His mate was a prat too. And indeed the two Irish guys in my room in the last hostel were also prats. Not proof positive, but a trend emerging. Having said that, I met an ace Irish guy in Cambodia… Sorry Connor if you’re reading this!

And herein lies the beauty and pitfall of hostels out in the countryside- You’re welded to your fellow guests by dint of communal dining and cosy nights by the fire, which can be a very good or very bad thing. In this case it was fairly ambivalent as people tend to leave and arrive every day, ensuring a good turnover of guests.

You can’t complain about the views at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, the sister hostel to the immensely popular Secret Garden hostel in Quito. It really is stunning, especially on a clear morning. You’re surrounded by volcanoes. Most are inactive. Cotopaxi itself is a little bit agitated at the moment with a small ash plume. Nothing major’s expected, although you are not allowed to trek on it right now…

The shuttle from Quito to Cotopaxi takes a couple of hours. Fairly comfortable apart from the last 40 minutes or so on a meticulously laid but nonetheless bone-jarring cobble track and then a proper farm track to the hostel itself. Boing boing boing. Since I’d taken up the all-inclusive ‘deal’ then the shuttle there was included. It’s really good value at $130 for 3 nights’ dorm accommodation, ALL meals and daily activities. And the chance to chill out in some amazing countryside with the resident dogs. In fact, the pull factors are numerous:

Dogs
Open air bathing
And the amazing jacuzzi!

Everyone on the first afternoon hikes up to some nearby waterfalls. I can’t over-estimate how much this place made me feel like I was back in England. Green rolling hills, small fields, Friesan cows in abundance and, let’s not beat around the bush, generally torrential rain every bloody afternoon!

Moist

Back to the hostel, and another of the big pull factors- A lovely log fire in the living room. Added to which, tonight was PIZZA NIGHT so the ovens were fired up and hotter than the sun:

The next day dawned and the biking trip was full, so a completely non-wasted day in the hammock it was. You can also do treks (included) and horse riding for an extra 35 bucks. I didn’t fancy the latter, my spine didn’t feel like it would appreciate any more compression just yet.  Choo! Time instead to chill out and feast on the constant supply of both bananas and delicious banana bread…

Bunch of bananas to browse
The happy place

So, after a pleasant few nights, some of the best sleep I’ve had on my travels on account of the wood fire-heated, comfy and cosy dorms, and then a good morning mountain biking and fishing, it was time to head back to the big smoke. Quito. My passport was ready to be collected, complete with shiny new one year residency of Ecuador. Perfecto.

I’d grown pretty hardcore about using buses rather than taxis, but as luck would have it 4 other people wanted to go back to Quito so a private shuttle was as cheap as chips. Straight back to Secret Garden…

…or nearby. My English friends had told me about a place down the road with $14 private en-suite rooms, so for the sake of 3 quid I thought I’d treat myself. But it gets better than that… If you’re staying in Quito I’d highly recommend Hostel Belmont, Jose Antepara, San Blas area. The owner Mauricio is a truly lovely guy, very welcoming and I got a single en-suite room for $7. Not the height of luxury, but en suite, hot water, clean and tidy… All you need. Also, in contrast to Secret Garden’s orchestra of car horns the rooms were off the road and COMPLETELY SILENT. You can’t argue with that… Especially not for 30 per cent LESS than a dorm bed. Ideal.

Passport in hand, it was time to place myself in the hands of Galapagan bureaucracy and wait for an unspecified period of time for my Galápagos residence certificate to come through… Then I could book my flight to the islands and get gone!

So, next little trip from Quito. I couldn’t hang around the city any longer so endured an hour on a packed tram to Quitumbe bus station (25 cents vs a $10 taxi… Absolute no brainer!).

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I LOVE the bus system in Ecuador. Cheap as chips. Ridiculously so if you compare it to the cost per KM in Argentina. And so regular. Never, ever book anything- Just turn up at the main bus station and I guarantee something will be going where you want in the next 15 mins or so. So, straight in, bus ticket bought, bus departs… Destination Baños. 3 and a half hours away.

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Despite being the same word as “Toilet” Baños is a really pleasant place. Very touristy but set in intense countryside and with plenty to do. It’s Ecuador’s “extreme sports” capital so you can do all kinds of stupid activities like bridge swinging and bungee jumping really cheaply.

This is more my kind of thing though. Baños in Spanish also means “Baths”, and the area is famed for its natural hot spring spas. This one is on the outskirts of the village and happily, right next to my hostel so I popped in. It’s neither expensive nor glamorous, but the waters are amazing, ranging from pleasant to ‘boiling alive’. And obviously the masochistic cold ones too.

 The running water around Baños is no less spectacular, it’s home to some incredible waterfalls and some pretty hairy white water rafting. Against my better judgement I decided to do the latter, since I felt I needed to do at least something ‘extreme’ there. I knew the exact point of my downfall… It was the point when I had started to idly ponder that the trip was a little ‘tame’. Yep, literally seconds later the raft had flipped spectacularly in a rapid and we were all having a swim/drink.

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Sedate waters. Sam in stroke!
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The rapids begin…

It took a little while to haul everyone back to the boat, and a good day before my lungs fully cleared of river water. From that point on the slightly annoying American woman became completely hysterical and didn’t speak to anyone else for the duration of the trip/bus ride home, other than to swear at the guides for letting us flip. I meanwhile was consigned to an evening of occasional fruity burps and the occasional involuntary bubble as the river water slowly exited my lungs.

This was, we found out, the reason for our guide Pato’s nickname. The Duck. Loves swimming… Curses.

 Of course, it wasn’t all adrenaline sports and river ingestion, I met some great people and went with them to visit the nearby Pailon Del Diablo, a spectacular series of waterfalls up the valley. We got very, very wet. This is not the place if you’re precious about your stuff, or indeed don’t like small spaces, the walk up to the top of the waterfall involves clambering through a 3ft high cave. Eeek!

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Slightly more sedate thrills were to be found in Mindo, two hours North of Quito and another easy bus journey. It’s definitely not a place you’d want to spend more than a day or two, but nonetheless a calm, peaceful town in the cloud forest and with a few things around to see.

I continued my time honoured method of just turning up and finding somewhere to crash, it’s never very difficult and almost immediately I happened upon Hostal Sanchez, one block away from the plaza. A little family run hostel, it nevertheless offered a double room for $10 which fitted the bill nicely. Sadly as it later turned out this didn’t include a good night’s sleep. For reasons un fathomable the elderly owners simply didn’t go to bed, wandering around and talking to neighbours out of the front of the house at regular intervals including, I noted, 3 and 5am.

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Undeterred by chronic lack of sleep, I managed to get up bright and early to visit the butterflies of Mindo. Feed them some bananas, and theyre anybodys!

My week of ‘hurry up and wait’ frustration ended suddenly on Thursday afternoon when my residency certificate came through by e-mail. A quick dash around various TAME airline offices and a ticket was acquired for the very next day, bright and early.

Galápagos, I’m coming for you!

Ps. Please excuse the formatting and spelling of this post, it’s been painfully cobbled together from my normal iPad and also an Ecuadorian laptop which really doesn’t like doing formatting.

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