An enormous bed of fluffy, whipped but uncooked meringue appears to lie below us as we fly from Guayaquil to Quito. Quito is pushing close to 3,000 metres so I wonder how we will go coming in to land in the mountains in this cloud cover.
No problem. As if by magic, the clouds break and we fly between mountains that look so green after the grim drought conditions further south. Quito seems to go on forever, with buildings up and down and along the mountain slopes and we come in to land uneventfully.
A small door on the narrow cobbled Quito street opens into a spacious old building of wooden floors, beautiful corridors and great facilities. Our room is large with windows that open onto a lovely internal courtyard garden. There are sitting areas, a huge breakfast area, a games room and a patio looking up to the hills and night lights.
Just around the corner is La Ronda, a pedestrian street of artesan shops, restaurants, music and popular in the evenings.
Just a few blocks the other way is the Grand Plaza. Alive with people trying to make a living, families out and about – it feels like the kind of place you would run into everyone you know if you just waited long enough.
The architecture keeps us looking up and around. The large internal courtyards are endlessly delightful.
I spot a coffee shop tucked away and can tell at 50 metres it will have great coffee. Right there in central Quito we get a flat white with all the flourishes we are used to. It can be a very long walk to find an acceptable coffee. We often opt to go without. Coffee snobs.
Visiting the equator is something you kind of feel obliged to do when on the spot. Mitad del Mundo was probably my least enjoyable excursion so far. There were some lovely parts to the day like the imploded crater in particular, and the museum, but in general the touristified setup was depressing. Just my opinion and maybe the altitude was making me a little grumpy that day.
Of course nothing stays the same, but my memory of the 1974 visit is the one I will try to keep uppermost in my mind.
The touristy day out confirms for me that we will skip Banos and head straight to the jungle. What a brilliant move that turned out to be. Check it out on Amazon Adventure Ecuador.
So here we are in Cuenca after the most extraordinary few days in he jungle and having been told from several quarters this is a difficult option to try to get to Cuenca from Tena. Getting around Ecuador is relatively easy, but it seems our decision to skip Banos makes the next stage not quite so straight forward.
In the event, we find the trip not so bad at all, apart from the 5 hour leg to Riobamba without a comfort stop.. The fact that we have such gorgeous hotels in Riobamba and then Cuenca definitely makes it all worthwhile.
I doze off as the bus perpetually winds and climbs and wake just in time to see the Sky Door and glimpse through a break in the mountains a fabulous outlook framed against a perfect blue sky. Hydroelectric schemes then a couple of tunnels through mountains and we hit Banos.
Just out of town, the police flag us down and two people are taken off the bus. The back seat area where they had been sitting is very thoroughly searched. We move on, left to guess what that was about.
Travelling on South American buses is nothing like a long distance bus trip in Asia or most other places for that matter. We have a terminal to terminal ticket with an allocated seat, but the locals get on and off all along the way. Never ceases to fascinate me how people get on and then barely a few metres later, we stop again for more people. Why do they not stand together my organised brain can’t help but ask. The conductors are older and more professional these days but they still repetitively yell out our destination as we pass through hamlets and villages. Just in case passers by want to go there.
Then there are the vendors who hop on the bus selling everything from fresh banana cake to mandarins, movie dvds, potato chips and drinks. Every so often, someone will get on with a long and compelling story to tell about his products. Always seems to be a man, takes several minutes to tell the story at the front of the bus then moves along the corridor pressing 4 different types of sweets on everyone – just to have a look. Over the journey I see people obediently taking the little bundle on more than one occasion only to hand it back as the bus reaches the end of the town and the vendor has to get off.
A never ending stream of fascinating people get on and off the bus. Sometimes standing room only.
Riobamba still has some cobbled streets in the centre of town but nothing else triggers my memory banks. Who could fail to be impressed when we are offered a real coffee on entering Casa 1881. Massive room, enormous bathroom, great breakfast and they have Netflix. Nice.
Seems to be only one company running a bus service from Riobamba to Cuenca, endless others going to Quito and Guayaquil. Momentarily, I worry the plan is going awry but spot the one and only company at the very last window at the terminal.
The Pan-American Highway stretches about 48,000 kms and we get to ride a stretch through the Andes. We are on one mountain slope that merges into another and another, just across the way is another string of mountains. Any time the valley between widens out, there are farms and dwellings. When it is even wider, there are townships, some quite big. Some valleys are lush with many small crops and a few sheep, cows, pigs, horses and donkeys. Other valleys are drier and the vegetation stubby.
Some towns have huge statues gracing their main street, usually three well spaced out. The standard format seems to be an indigenous person followed by a missionary and finally what I guess is a colonial administrator.
We drive through clouds and above clouds, with never a straight stretch of road.
Cuenca we just loved and spent all our time there wandering around the central area visiting museums and enjoying the architecture.
Our final night dinner at La Vina in Cuenca was so good. A recommendation from Alberto at Casa Ordonez, our very beautiful old hotel. I’d punt it is the best Italian food within a 10 hour plane ride. Plus it is the home of the Ecuador jazz society. A seat upstairs gives you front row seats to the live music which matches the food in excellence.
The final drive to Guayaquil is beautiful passing through the Cajas national park. Waterfalls, tumbling streams and lakes that have formed in any depression in the mountains. Finally we are back on the coastal plain and it feels strange to be driving on a flat, straight road after what has felt like weeks driving through the mountains. Tree ferns and palms reappear followed by broad acre farming – bananas, rice, cacao and sugar cane.
Guayaquil is super hot, so jumpers come off, hats and sandals come on.
Ecuador has been just an awesome destination. Such diversity in a relatively small area and so accessible. Apparently tourism is down, I am guessing the Zika virus media frenzy we were exposed to may be a contributor.
If Ecuador is on your radar, you won’t be disappointed. Check out my other Ecuador posits