Over the course of a month AJ and I flew, bussed and hiked our way around Ecuador, soaking up everything the country had to offer. We found Ecuador to be a land of wildly varying climates and environments – from the humid and lush cloud forest of Mindo, to the scorching hot beaches of the Galapagos Islands, to the ever-changing weather within the urban landscapes of the mountainous cities and towns. We had the opportunity to experience many different activities during our time there and came away from this incredibly beautiful country with a whole slew of amazing memories. Here are my favourite memories from our time in Ecuador.
You can read all about my Ecuador adventures here.
The Galapagos Islands:
1. Getting to travel around the Islands
The Galapagos Islands are hands down, the biggest highlight of our travels so far, and will undoubtedly be one of the biggest highlights of the entire year. Being able to explore three of the islands and discover and immerse myself in so much amazing nature and see so much diverse wildlife was an absolute pleasure, and one that I will not forget any time soon. While we knew that we would end up blowing quite a chunk of our budget on our eight days there, AJ and I both knew that it would be completely worth it to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience (and in fact we ended up doing a pretty good job at keeping it as low-budget as possible, which you can read about here).
If you ever find yourself in Ecuador and are unsure about whether or not you should go, I have one word for you: GO. You will not regret it, I promise you.
2. Seeing a blue-footed booby
While this was a part of being on the Galapagos Islands, it still really stands out to me as an amazing memory, mainly because we only managed to see blue-footed boobys on our last day on Isla Isabela, and at that point, we were convinced that we weren’t going to see one as, from what we’d read, it is now really rare to see them on the inhabited islands and the only guaranteed way of seeing them was to take a day-trip to North Semour (which was WAY too expensive for us). Going on the Tintoreras Half Day Trip was our last shot to see a blue-footed booby, so it made the experience all the more amazing and special when we saw a whole group of them standing on a bunch of rocks in the sea and got to see them flying around and diving as well. Also, as an amazing cherry-on-top bonus, we got to see some super cute Galapagos Penguins, which we didn’t even know existed!
3. Snorkelling around the Galapagos
This was extra-special for me as I had never been snorkelling before (I’m getting to do all sorts of water-based firsts on these travels!), and literally had no expectations about what I would see. My very first time snorkelling was at Playa Loberia on San Christobal Island and HOLY MOLY it was a spectacular experience! The water was crystal clear, we could see EVERYTHING around us, and got to see lots of different types of fish AND swam with a sea turtle! We also got to do some snorkelling as part of the Tintoreras Tour and that was another amazing experience; we followed giant schools of fish, several sea turtles and eagle rays.
Getting used to breathing while having my head underwater was really weird at first, but it was pretty easy to get used to, unlike walking while wearing flippers – I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that!
4. Spending Time With Iguanas in the Parque Seminario in Guayaquil
When I heard about the ‘Iguana Park’ from the receptionist at the hotel in Guayaquil, I knew 100% that (a) I had to see it straight away, and (b) I would probably never want to leave. I was correct on both counts.
The Parque Seminario is an absolute gem of a find in the middle of the city. It’s like something out of a whimsical children’s book; a park where you can hang out with a multitude of iguanas that are all too happy/not bothered if you plop yourself down on the path beside them (just don’t go touching them or trying to pick them up!) The whole park is full of them – sunning themselves by the pond, in the grass, in the middle of the footpaths, hidden in the middle of plants, halfway up trees or under benches. I absolutely loved every moment of being there; if you’re in Guayaquil and need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, then Parque Seminario is the perfect place. It is directly opposite the Cathedral which is also worth visiting as it is stunning.
5. Walking around Barrio de las Penas and up to the Lighthouse
Barrio de la Penas is the site of the original settlement in Guayaquil, and it’s an absolute treat to walk around. The buildings and roads are all original and well maintained to give the neighbourhood this wonderful colonial, stepping-back-in-time vibe about it, with a dash of bohemian influences thrown in thanks to the multitude of cute and quirky cafes and art shops scattered throughout. Aside from simply wandering around admiring the beautiful and colourful buildings, one of the big attractions of Las Penas is the walk up to the lighthouse – you walk up over 400 numbered steps which wind through the neighbourhood until you reach the adorable blue and white lighthouse at the top of the hill. You will also be rewarded with a view of Guayaquil stretched out before you, which gives you an appreciation for just how big the city actually is.
6. New Year’s Eve in Quito
Ecuador has a number of unique traditions for New Year’s Eve, and it was brilliant to experience them first-hand while staying in Quito. During the day you will be treated to the spectacle of the ‘widows’; groups of men who dress as women (complete with terrible wigs and makeup) and parade along the streets, begging for beer money from drivers and pedestrians. Whilst this used to be a fairly serious tradition to honour women from the local area, it is now a much more light-hearted tradition taken on by young guys to make a few dollars. On the streets the vendors will be selling bunches of grapes (part of a midnight tradition), and you will also see a huge variety of dummies and effigies being sold everywhere – outside shops, along the side of the road, and on street corners. These will range from simple dummy bodies made out of sewn up pieces of cloth stuffed with wood and paper, and with a mask on the ‘head,’ to detailed and colourful papier machѐ figures in a variety of sizes. There are a few street parties and concerts that take place during the day and everyone dresses up – it feels quite a lot like Halloween walking around! These finish up around 10pm, and following that people either go home or gather in some of the central areas for street parties. We were staying in the La Mariscal area and were easily able to find a gathering near a bunch of bars. This is when all the fireworks come out; either long thin tubes that you light at one end and hold, sticking the lit end up towards the sky while fireworks are launched out of it, or small cones that you put on the ground and explode like large Catherine wheels when lit. Clearly health and safety is not a priority when it comes to fireworks. As midnight approaches a bunch of small bonfires will be lit, and of course, all the men in the area will try to jump over them with varying levels of success. At midnight the effigies and dummies are thrown in the bonfires – symbolising getting rid of all the bad of the past year and welcoming the good of the new year. It’s also traditional to eat twelve grapes and drink champagne, and if you’re going travelling you should run around the block with a suitcase; we didn’t see anyone doing this. The atmosphere at the street party was really festive and celebratory, everyone wanting to get into the spirit of the night. Definitely a great way to spend New Years!
7. Climbing the Basilica in Quito
Quito’s Basilica is an absolutely enormous building which towers over the surrounding buildings. Based on how beautiful its architecture is, it’s awe-inspiring to see but, best of all, for $2 you can climb to the very top of its turrets to get an incredible view of the city. The climb is exhilarating/terrifying depending on how you feel about heights. The first part of the climb is inside one of the towers, so it’s difficult to tell just how high up you are; during this climb you get to see the inside of the Cathedral and admire the stunning stained-glass windows. Once up to the top of the inside of the building, you walk across a narrow wooden bridge over the original roof of the Basilica. At the other side you climb a ladder and emerge onto the roof of the Basilica; all climbing after this is done outside. The “stairs” are really steep to the point when they are basically ladders, and there’s no safety railing, so if you want to get up but don’t like heights then just focus on climbing and do not look around you. If you have no problem with heights, then feel free to look around as you climb; the views around you of the Basilica and its surroundings are amazing. Once up the top you are treated to an incredible view of the city stretched out before you. A definite must-do for Quito!
8. Hiking up Cotopaxi and Mountain Biking Down.
Cotopaxi’s national park is about a 2/3 hour-drive from Quito where you will find the Volcano Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest, and active, volcano. If the weather is on your side, you can see the summit of the volcano as you drive through the park – though this is rare thanks to the clouds! At the time we went (November 2016) the park had only been reopened for three months as Cotopaxi had been recently active; this also meant that the hike could only go up to the refuge centre and not to the summit. The experience itself was still amazing; we drove up to 4500m and then hiked just over a kilometre, climbing up to 4864m to the refuge centre. Due to the altitude the hike is difficult but not impossible, and you get some amazing views when the cloud clears; it’s also pretty intense when the cloud rolls up the volcano in the blink of an eye. It’s also pretty amazing to be hiking through snow near the refuge after sweating in the heat of the sun down in the park. After a break and a hot drink in the refuge centre you hike back down to the carpark and then continue downhill on mountain bikes. This is a very bumpy ride but I still think it’s completely worth it to feel yourself accelerating down the volcano and to see the landscape spread out before you as you make your way down into the park.
9. Rafting in Banos
My first ever experience rafting was in Arequipa in Peru, and while it was a brilliant experience and a great first experience, it pales in comparison to the rafting in Banos, which was rougher, tougher, and far more exciting. The rapids were intense, and our guide was brilliant fun and also determined to dump us in the river as much as possible, which meant that we were tossed into the water several times, all adding to the fun of the moment. We were also given the chance to jump into a calm part of the river from a bridge, which of course I jumped at the chance to do (AJ did not as she is a very sensible individual); very glad I did it, would never do it again, and I only regret that there are no pictures for me to show off! The rafting was really enjoyable, and this experience has only fuelled my desire to get back in the river – would highly recommend!
10. Soaking in the Thermal Baths in Banos
It was the prospect of soaking in an outdoor warm mineral bath that mainly drew me to Banos; I’d been to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and absolutely loved it, but the idea of having a more “authentic” experience rather than the highly touristic places really appealed to me. While there are a number of thermal baths in Banos, the Piscina de la Virgin baths are the most well-known and most distinctive with their yellow waters, outdoor setting and adjacent waterfall. It’s incredibly relaxing to simply sit back in the warmth of the middle pool, soak up the warmth and enjoy the view. If you fancy spicing things up there is the opportunity to sit in the hot pool and then duck under the freezing waters of the showers – a great wakeup call for your body!
11. Ziplining in Mindo
Having only ever done ziplining involving only one or two lines, I was excited to try out a ziplining course of ten lines. It was a brilliant experience; exciting, funny, and slightly terrifying and uncomfortable at times. You make your way around the course with two instructors, climbing higher and higher between lines – half way through you get a chance to climb up to a view point and look out over Mindo and take some photos. You can bring your own camera with you, and the instructors are more than happy to take photos of you as you shoot across to the other side; mainly sitting, but there are times you get to do some pretty interesting poses like the superman and the butterfly. It’s a brilliant adrenaline-filled activity, definitely worth trying out!
12. Chocolate tour in Mindo
There are plenty of chocolate tours and chocolate museums to be found around Ecuador, but what drew us to the chocolate tour in the Quetzal factory/restaurant was that they took you through the entire process, starting with the seeds of the coco beans, and ending with the final chocolate. We were taken around their compound where we got the see the beans being dried, fermented, ground up, processed into pure chocolate and then processed further with sugar and other natural flavourings to make pure and flavoured dark chocolate. We were able to see all the different products that can be made with pure coco – lip balm, body butter, cooking chocolate, and chocolate for eating. At the end of the tour we also got to try liquid 100% pure coco – WAY more bitter than you would expect, and then we did “experiments,” with it, adding sugar and other flavourings to it and tasting it. It was really cool to experience the difference that just adding a bit of sugar to the pure coco made; it was instantly sweeter and dissolved straight in your mouth – as it turns out adding sugar to coco decreases its melting point, which is why milk chocolate melts much faster than dark chocolate. All in all it was a really interesting tour and a great way to spend a few hours.
13. Cathedral Vieja Church and Muesum in Cuenca
Thinking that it would be the same as any other church or religious museum, AJ and I initially weren’t going to visit this museum. However, as we had free time on our hands and it only cost $1 to enter, we decided to check it out; this turned out to be a fantastic decision and stroke of luck for us, as this church is absolutely gorgeous. We were blown away by the sculptures, the detailed wood carvings on the walls, the beauty of the ceilings, and just the pure majesty of the place. One of the highlights is definitely the set-up of statues which recreate the Last Supper. This was easily my favourite church in Cuenca, and one of my favourite in Ecuador.
14. Hiking the Quilotoa Loop
When AJ and I heard of a self-guided multi-day hike through picturesque villages in the mountains of Ecuador, we put it down as an absolute must-do. The more we read about the hike and the more we researched, the more excited we became, and we were not disappointed. The landscape is lush and vibrant, the scenery, especially after one of the many steep climbs, is stunning, and as long as you go early enough, the weather is beautiful (get out before 9am, and do your best to be done before 2pm, that’s when the rain starts). We chose to do the hike starting in Sigchos and ending at the Quilotoa crater lake, and though it is said to be the tougher way to go as you have to do the most climbing on the last day, I would 100% recommend doing it that way; first of all I way prefer going uphill than downhill because I have mega-dodgy ankles, and secondly and most importantly, you get an incredible sense of satisfaction when you scramble up the final hill on the last day of your hike and are treated to the sight of the crater lake spread out in front of you. This hike is incredibly good value for money, and a brilliant adventure to have. You can read my visual guide to the Loop starting here.
Ecuador in General:
15. Modern Art and Street art everywhere – in particular Cuenca, Guayaquil, and Quito
Just like in Peru, there is a strong presence of street art in Ecuador, mainly paintings and murals on walls. However, there was also a surprising number of statues scattered throughout some of the cities, in particular Guayaquil and Cuenca. When I read about Ecuador before we travelled there, the main things that came up were the beauty of its nature, variety of environments, and incredible wildlife diversity; no one mentioned the beautiful and expressive art that is a joy to find as you explore a city. It is gems like this that really bring a city to life, and heighten your overall enjoyment of a country.
16. All the churches
Also in keeping with Peru, Ecuador’s cities are brimming with stunning and beautiful churches and cathedrals. The architectural style, size and level of decoration varies, but all of the churches that we came across were linked by the fact that they were beautiful and peaceful places of worship, and that there was evidently a lot of pride in keeping them as beautiful and immaculate as possible. Even the smallest and simplest of churches would include a beautiful altarpiece, or colourful stained-glass windows, while the larger buildings were graced with intricate wooden and stone carvings, majestic statues of saints and jaw-dropping altars. Regardless of where you find yourself in Ecuador, make sure to take the time to visit the local church or cathedral; you will not regret it.