Our first trip to South America, began in Quito - one of the worlds highest cities. Straight away we travelled South on the Pan-American highway to Riobamba, from where we took the switch-back railway down to Huigra. Most backpackers opt for travelling on the roof of the 'bus', but we settled for the warmth of inside!
Next we took the bus to Banős - a popular tourist destination as an entry point for the jungle and as a resort in the hills. The town is perched on the edge of a clifftop canyon, and the surroundings make it perfect for hiking and cycling around.
After Banős we visited Latacunda for an annual festival - Mama de Negra celebrating the introduction of black slaves into Ecuador by the Americans - not exactly the most PC subject, but very colourful all the same (hence the absence of any festival pictures here!). Next stop was Saquisilli - a small market town just up the road. We stayed there overnight, so as to get an early start for the Thursday market. At 6am we were navigating our way through the meat market and hoards of early shoppers trying to get the best guinea pigs!
We took the 11am bus after the market to Chugchilan, 4 hours away up in the hills to the west. The scenery was majestic - canyons all around. The road hugged the hillsides and the bus seemed to take ages to get to places that didn't look far away. The highlight of Chugchilan was bumping into the Raid Gauloises - a mad competition that sees teams of 5 competing to finish a torturous route including scaling volcano's, horse riding, cycling, hiking, rafting and canoeing. The winning team finished in about 6 days having had about 4 hours sleep. Check out Raid Gauloises for info/pictures!
We zoomed back to Quito, and flew into the jungle for a 5 day expedition. Upon our return we took a day trip to Otavalu, for the Saturday market - a sure stop for any tourist.
The country consists of the Sierra to the west (the coast), a north-south spine of volcano's down the centre and the Oriente to the east (the jungle). Quito - the capital at 2,800m, and other central cities are nestled in troughs between volcanic peaks. The Galapagos islands are situated about 12 hrs offshore by boat.
Bus travel is easy, and being such a small country most trips don't take that long by bus (relatively). I would recommend though getting away from the Pan American highway if you can. One particular destination to get to if you can is Chugchilan - 4 hours West of Latacunda, and situated close to the Quilitoa crater (stunning). It is set in amidst beautiful canyons, and reminded me of the Grand Canyon (on a smaller scale). We stayed at the Black Sheep Inn - a eco-friendly hostel run by a couple of Americans - highly rec. although quite expensive at $15 for a dorm it has good info/maps, great veggie food and most important a good atmosphere & friendly staff! A popular hike is to take the bus to Quilitoa crater (1 hr) and then walk around the rim and down through the canyon back to Chugchilan. It takes 4-5 hrs, providing you don't get lost!
Another highlight was our jungle trip into the Cuyabeno National Reserve. We flew into Lago Agrio, near the Columbian border, and then took a boat down river for 4 nights stay in the jungle. You have to take a tour into the jungle, and we were very lucky to have good weather for most of the trip (Apparently the previous weeks trip had been very wet). Fauna spotted include pink dolphins, toocans, macaws, crocodiles and a rare giant rat - not as scary as it sounds!
Our flights were booked through Journey Latin America - the cheapest deal I could find. Beware though that KLM flights, via Amsterdam, stop in the Dutch Antilles and Guayaquil before reaching Quito, and return with a stop in Aruba. We booked our jungle trek with Native Life and can highly recommend them. I was nervous booking the tour through the Internet, but was pleased to find Native Life were well organised and there gave us plenty to do - We took the 5 day trip and had Renato as a guide - one dissapointment was though that he didn't eat the lava he found in a seed!
Ecuador must rate as the most adventurous holiday to date. At the time of our trip (Sept '98) the economic situation was suffering in line with the rest of the world. During our 2 week stay the exchange rate increased from 5000 to 6000 sucre to the dollar - students were rioting in protest and organising national strikes, demanding the resignation of their their president. We weren't affected directly although the strike had caused roads to be blocked off around Lago Agrio - a mining town in the jungle, and our bus was forced to navigate its way around the odd tree on the road.
A volcano on the Galapagos had just started erupting as we left, forcing the airlifting of the turtles to safety - this made BBC1 news. Another volcano immediately to the west of Quito - Guagua Pichincha - has also started smoking - last time it went up it covered Quito in 40cm of ash!
Crime is also on the increase. We travelled to Ecuador believing it to be the safest South American country - I fear this alas is no longer true. Perhaps as a result of the economic situation things are becoming more dangerous, and extra care is needed to become less of a target. Stories of bag slashing and theft were common - especially around Otavalu market and on the buses. Our closest shave was probably in Quito - we returned from our jungle trek to find that our hostel (Casa Sol) had been robbed at 3am by armed thieves 2 nights previously. We were told that this gang were also responsible for a couple of similar attacks on hostels. In these cases they had also gone through all of the guests rooms too, robbing everyone.
Having said all of this though, I have to say that we were fortunate enough not to be affected by any crime. Not everyone is.
Check out Ecuador info and Travel warnings for the latest news from the US State Department.