23.12.2015 - 30.12.2015
We had some fun getting into Ecuador - our colectivo (a taxi, but shared so it is dirt cheap, I think we paid about $0.40 each) drove straight through both borders and dropped us off just down the road. We figured we should make sure we got an entrance stamp from Ecuador so joined the massive lines. When we got to the front we got sent back to the Colombian side to get an exit stamp, 2 days before Christmas they had ONE person processing exit stamps so unsurprisingly it took rather a long time. After about 2 hours lining up and 30 seconds getting a passport stamped we were finally out of Colombia and into Ecuador. We were a bit suspicious when we got offered a money exchange for our remaining pesos at a rate about 20% better what it should have been (we had looked it up that morning). We checked the bills were genuine and it worked out great for us, although I have no idea how this guy makes money, unless he offers absolutely awful rates going the other way.
We got a couple more buses and arrived late at Otavalo, a very traditional Ecuadorian town which is famous for its markets. The markets were surprisingly empty in the morning of the 24th of December and we bought an alpaca scarf and jersey, both for about half the first asking price just because there was no one else buying.
We then got a bus to Quito. Despite being so close to the equator it wasn't too hot as the city is 2,800m above sea level. We visited the local produce market and went a bit crazy buying fresh berries, eggs, bread, sausages, and kiwifruit for a Christmas feast the next morning.
Our hostel also put on a Christmas dinner and it was really nice to mingle with a substitute family for Christmas. David and I shared a bottle of wine and were both feeling quite giggly from it - I blame the altitude!!!
On Christmas morning I made David a surprise treasure hunt with clues to find his present and he cooked an amazing Christmas breakfast!
Then we headed to the equator with a nice German couple we had met the night before. The monument was put about 300m in the wrong place, although they emphatically told us that the equator zone is about 5km wide due to fluctuations in the earth's rotation. There was also a museum with some cool physical experiments and an observatory which was disappointing as it really focused on constellations rather than anything specific to Ecuador.
The next morning we got up early to actually see some of the old city of Quito before we left. The basilica was impressive, and there were a lot of other nice plazas and old buildings. All of the churches had entrance fees which was a bit disappointing, and the old town was nice but I thought it was over-hyped. The old town was one of the first places in the world to be granted UNESCO cultural heritage status but maybe it hasn't been renovated and maintained as much as other places we have visited.
That afternoon we got a bus to a small town called Baños (named for its thermal baths, although Baños also means bathroom in Spanish) which was really cute.
On our first morning we took an easy (downhill) 18km bike ride past a number of waterfalls down a dramatic valley. We watched a lot of people ziplining and bungy jumping and really enjoyed the picturesque bike ride. At the end of the ride we went to an extremely impressive waterfall (this really means something as most waterfalls we have visited have disappointed compared to the ones we have in NZ). Then we got a colectivo home with our bikes, we aren't stupid enough to try going back uphill for 18km!!! Plus David's pedal fell off at the end of the bike so it would have been difficult.
That evening we went to the hot pools the town originally was famous for before it became an adventure sports hot spot. They were really nice, and we both jumped in the cold pool a couple of times!
The next day we did a river rafting trip which was really good. It was 100% in Spanish but the guide spoke clearly which was a real confidence boost (we are still getting used to y and ll being pronounced "j" rather than "y" as in central america). The rapids were a good level of difficulty, I had a great time and wouldn't have wanted them any bigger. One person fell out of our boat and David helped in the rescue operation of pulling him back into the boat.
That afternoon we went to the treehouse at the end of the world. Effectively it is a swing which overlooks a spectacular view of the valley. Unfortunately the low cloud which had been present for most if our time in Baños hadn't abated and we didn't see much.
The next morning we left at just before 5am to make it to our next stop, Riobamba, before our bike tour started at 9. Thankfully for once the bus arrived on time so we got a nice breakfast before the tour started. We had gone up from 1800m to 2800m and I noticed the slight headache which I sometimes get with altitude, not a great start when our tour would take us over 5000m!!! I took a panadol and hoped for the best. Our tour group was really nice, we have noticed that at this time of year there are a lot more short term travelers with real jobs rather than the young people who don't know what they are doing with their lives we have met earlier in the year!
We got really lucky with the weather and had amazingly clear views of Mt Chimborazo. We drove to about 4900m and then walked up to over 5000m. Due to the bulge of the earth at the equator, we were actually at one of four spots further from the centre of the earth than the top of Mt Everest is!! I felt okay with the altitude, although definitely noticed a difference in my breathing. We drank coca tea, which is derived from the same plant as cocaine, and is legal in south america. It has a very low concentration of the active ingredient and is used for a variety of medicines, including for altitude sickness. I think it helped us at 5000m.
Then we biked down! It was great fun and the views were once again amazing. We got to the bottom about 4, and had a much needed lunch. We also saw alpacas which were pretty cute, from beind they look a lot like sheep!
The next day we got a bus to Guayaquil, the largest town in Ecuador and the place where our flight to Galapagos would leave from the next day. We explored Guayaquil a bit that evening and thought it seemed like a nice city. Ecuadorians have a tradition where they make paper mache efigies which are lit on fire and burnt in new years eve and a lot of these were in display.