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Mitad del Mundo – Quito – Ecuador

Visiting the Mitad del Mundo (or middle of the world) is something that almost everyone who comes to Quito does.  When I first visited it 14 years ago, it was a massive monument and a yellow line that marked the Equator line (in theory).  Oh my – how it has changed!

The big monument is still there, and just as I remember it.

me at the Mitad del Mundo - Quito - Ecuador

As is the yellow line

 Mitad del Mundo - Quito - Ecuador

O stands for “oeste” or “west” in Spanish

But I remember this being in the middle of nowhere.  Now, it is surrounded by a whole complex of museums, souvenir shops (where you can get your passport stamped), and eateries.  Quite the tourist trap!

Which it really is.  Although it is remarkably simple to get there on public transport, it takes 3 x forever to do so.  Alternatively, you can take one of any number of tours offered by almost every hostel in Quito.  However, in my opinion, it really isn’t worth it.

The highlights for me were actually the colourful artworks scattered around the site

artwork at mitad del mundo - quito - ecuador

and this dance performance we happened to stumble upon.

 

Recommendation

To be honest – I don’t really 🙁

Cost: USD $3.50 to be able to enter and just walk around the site, including taking pictures of the monument.  Of course this also allows you to visit the eateries and souvenir shops.  USD$7.50 if you want to visit the museums.   Public transport to get there is USD$0.50 – but bear in mind it is very slow.  I think every hostel in Quito offers a trip out here, usually combined with a trip up the TeleferiQo.

Time: If you just by the basic entrance ticket, an hour would be more than enough time at the site.

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Termas de Papallacta (Hot Springs) – Quito – Ecuador

If you are after relaxation, the Papallacta Hot Springs (Termas de Papallacta) are a very easy day-excursion from Quito, and a really lovely experience.

Investigating how to get there on public transport, I decided it would be simpler to head to the Quitumbe terminal to catch the bus, rather than trying to pick it up at La Scala in Cumbayá, even though I’m very familiar with buses going past the Scala shopping mall.

What a mistake!

After catching the Ecovía and taking 45 minutes to get to Quitumbe, we caught the bus no worries.  But then I almost chewed my arm off in frustration as the driver went no faster than about 30km/hr and took 1.5 hours to get from there to La Scala!   Had I known exactly where the bus was going to go (and that it was going to go past La Scala, there wasn’t a different route it would take), I most definitely would have just caught it from La Scala!

I have absolutely no idea why we were going so slowly (suspect a problem with the bus, but we never did find out), but when we eventually left the outskirts of Cumbayá we finally picked up speed.  Of course, from there it was only 20 kilometers more…

The bus dropped us at the entrance to the town of Papallacta and we caught one of the taxis waiting there up to the thermal pools.  There are actually two parts to the complex, and we chose the Balneario over more expensive Spa.  Really, I don’t understand how the Spa could be better than the Balneario – it was amazing!

Balneario part of the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

There are a large number of impeccably clean pools that range in temperature from glacial (straight out of the river) to scalding.   There’s even one that has spa jets!

Balneario part of the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

What we didn’t realise was that there are actually 3 main parts to the Balneario.  Two of them (those that we visited) are very obvious once you walk in, but there is a third section to your left as you enter.  It pays to explore the whole site first!

There are undercover picnic tables

Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

Raúl and I soaking up the warmth. You can see the undercover picnic tables in the back.

Plenty of change-rooms

Change rooms - Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

The baskets are for your personal items. You can also rent lockers here to keep them safe.

and amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

We lounged around soaking in the various pools for several hours before heading out and back down the road a little to have some lunch (about 1/2 the price of eating at the cafe/restaurant at the pools).  

Then we decided to hike up to the border of the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve where there were some lakes that Pedro has seen on the internet and thought would be really beautiful.

Although we never quite made it to the lakes (we were running out of daylight), the hike up the road was absolutely stunning.

Hiking to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

There were amazing views to the mountains further into the Reserve

Hiking to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

and behind us – what would be an incredible view of Volcán Antisana, if it weren’t for the cloud.

View to Volcan Antisana from Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

We managed to catch glimpses of the snow-covered peak of the Antisana Volcano, despite it being covered in clouds.

I am soooooo going to come back and do this again when next there is a clear day in Quito!

Recommendation

This was a surprisingly lovely day-trip that I highly recommend!   If you wanted to hike to see the lakes, I would suggest getting the taxi to take you all the way there first thing, then walk back down the road and enjoy the pools afterwards.

Cost:  The bus to Papallacta was around $3 each way.  The taxi to reach the pools was $1 each way.  Entrance to the Balneario was $8.50.  Though there is a cafe/restaurant on site, I recommend heading down the road a little to one of the several restaurants there, as they are about 1/2 the price.  Your ticket will allow you to re-enter.

Time:  Up to you really.   From La Scala it was about a 45 minute bus ride to get to Papallacta.  You could easily spend the whole day here relaxing and moving from pool to pool.   To hike to the lakes just before the entrance to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, I estimate it would take about 2-2.5 hours at a reasonable pace.

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The Swing at the End of the World – Baños – Ecuador

I visited Baños last year while I was in Ecuador, biking the Waterfall Route (which ends at the incredible Pailón del Diablo), ziplining for the first time at Puntzan, and surviving an amazing canyoning experience.

I repeated the first of these excursions when Pedro and Raúl came to visit, and visited another of the most popular attractions in this adventure capital of Ecuador.  Yes, I finally made it to the Swing at the End of the World at the Casa del Árbol.

It is a very impressive bus ride up to to the complex that sits high above Baños with an amazing vista of the valley far below.

View towards the Tungurahua Volcano from the Swing at the end of the world at the Casa del Arbol, Banos, Ecuador

View towards along the valley towards the Tungurahua Volcano from the Swing at the End of the World

There are actually several of these swings in existence now, but we decided to visit the original that, on a clear day, has incredible views to the Tungurahua Volcano.

The reason it is called the “Swing at the End of the World” is that you literally look like you are swinging out into nothing once you get going.

Person on the Swing at the end of the World shown against the surrounding landscape

The Swing at the end of the World flies out over nothingness. You can also see the Casa del Árbol (treehouse), which is the alternate name for this attraction.

Although there was lots of screaming going on from the other visitors to the swing (something I could not understand), I thought it was incredible in every way, and could have kept swinging forever!   After all, swinging is one of my favourite things to do in a park (I always jump on if the seat will fit an adult-sized butt), and these are the best views I’ve ever had from a swing!

There’s not a lot else to do up there apart from swing and admire the view, but definitely worth the few hours of an excursion 🙂

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Hiking Ecuador – Volcán Cotopaxi Day Tour

One of the most popular day-tours from Quito involves hiking to the glacier of Cotopaxi – the second highest volcano in Ecuador.  I’d never done it, despite spending a significant amount of time here over the years, so when Pedro and Raúl came to visit, this was high on the list.

Similar to the day I hiked Volcán Pasochoa, it was already raining at 6am as we waited out the front of CarpeDM Adventures for our minibus to take us to the National Park.  A couple of hours later, the weather had not improved…

The CarpeDM minibus with mountain bikes loaded for the Cotopaxi day tour in Ecuador

Our minivan loaded up with the mountain bikes in the parking lot at the start of the hike. Yes, that’s fog.

Nevertheless, our intrepid group of 9 plus our guide geared up for the hike to Refugio José Rivas at 4,863m (15,953ft) above sea level.

Our hiking group for the Cotopaxi day tour with CarpeDM Tours in Ecuador

I have to admit, there wasn’t a lot to see on the way up, though the Refugio eventually became visible in the distance.

Views of our hike up to the refugio on our day-trip to Volcán Cotopaxi in Ecuador

But we did make it 🙂

The sign at the Refugio José Rivas on Cotopaxi, Ecuador

And took a short break to warm up with coca tea and hot chocolate.

Our group at the Refugio José Rivas on Cotopaxi, Ecuador

The refugio itself is much, much larger than I expected, and very nice.  This is where those that are summiting Cotopaxi stay in preparation for their early-morning ascent.

From there, it was a further climb up to the start of the Cotopaxi glacier at 5,000m (16,404ft).  Fortunately the fog started to break-up/lift so we did end up with some half-vistas while hiking up.

Views of the snowy landscape we encountered while hiking between the refugio and the glacier on Volcán Cotopaxi in Ecuador

This was as far as we could go without a specifically-qualified guide and special equipment, so after taking innumerable photos while trying not to fall over in the snow and mud, we retraced our steps, heading back down past the Refugio to where we had left the minivan.

Me posing at the edge of the Cotopaxi Glacier in Ecuador

The end of the road for this trip to Cotopaxi. Standing at the edge of the Cotopaxi glacier

Down at the carpark, we managed some tantalising glimpses of the snowy peak of Cotopaxi

A glimpse of the snowy peak of Cotopaxi from the carpark - Ecuador

and the valley below

Panorama of the valley below the Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

But unfortunately glimpses were as good as we got.

From there, we drove down the worst part of the gravel access road and unloaded the mountain bikes off the minivan for our run down to Laguna Limpiopungo.

Our group on their mountain bikes ready to ride down the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador

This exact ride was meant to be part of the 3-day mountain biking trip I did last year with the Biking Dutchman, but we were unable to do it at the time as Cotopaxi was showing increased volcanic activity and this section of the park was closed.

There were some incredible views on the way down (it must be amazing with clear skies), and the less-than-spectacular weather made for very dramatic vistas.

Misty view of the Rumiñahui volcano as we mountain biked down the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador

You can see Laguna Limpiopungo at the base of Rumiñahui volcano

It did start raining on us as we rode, so once we reached the Laguna, we packed the bikes up quickly and piled back into the minivan for the return trip to Quito.

Recommendations

Even with very ordinary weather, this is a good day trip – there’s a reason it is one of the most popular.  Just remember, however, that you are climbing to 5,000m, so:

  • take lots of warm clothes with you (even if the weather is good)
  • try to spend a few days acclimatizing before you attempt it.  Massive kudos to Caite for doing the climb!  She had only arrived the night before from Chicago to join Pedro, Raúl and I for a few days in Ecuador.

Cost: $50 with CarpeDM Adventures including breakfast, lunch, transportation and guide

Time:  Full-day trip

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Exploring Loja and its food – Ecuador

I really, really like the town of Loja in southern Ecuador!

I was fortunate enough to be there for part of the Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja, but aside from this, I also just really enjoyed the vibe of the town itself.   I also love that the architecture is very different to what you see in the Historic Centre of Quito or in Cuenca – much less grandiose.

Beautiful colourful architecture that has been restored in Loja - Ecuador

Doing things around the wrong way, it wasn’t until my final morning that I joined Free Walks Loja for – you guessed it – a free walking tour of the town 🙂  

Guide from Free Walks Loja explaining the history of the town - Ecuador

These guys have only just started up, and I hope they get the funding they were seeking to grow the business, because these walking tours are always a great way to get acquainted with a place and learn a little about the history in particular.   I try to find them everywhere I go.

For example, one of the most famous landmarks in Loja is the Independence Monument.  But it is just another monument/clock tower (and not terribly interesting) unless someone actually tells you about its history and the stories depicted in the panels around the 4 sides of it.

Monumento de Independencia - Loja - Ecuador

Aside from participating in the Festival, and learning a little about the history and architecture of Loja – the other thing I indulged in while I was there was trying as much of the typical Lojano food as possible.   For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, this will come as no surprise 🙂  

Bolón de Maní at Ricuras de Sal y Dulce

I started off with something that isn’t actually typical to Loja, but that I’d been super-keen to try ever since reading about it on the web – a Bolón de Maní.  A bolón is essentially an Ecuadorian dumpling made of green plantains mashed with a variety of other ingredients – in this case – peanut paste (in Ecuador you can buy pure peanut paste [very cheap] as well as peanut butter [very expensive – go figure!]).  

Bolón de Maní and the two sauces - Loja - Ecuador

Mine was bigger than a softball/baseball, and soft and warm with an obvious peanuty flavour.  It was served with 2 sauces: chile and coriander, and what tasted like spicy curry.   Absolutely delicious and enough for about 3 meals for me – all for USD$3!

Cecina at Mama Lola

I do use TripAdvisor as I travel, but find that their restaurant/cafe recommendations are a little hit and miss.  Probably because everyone’s taste-buds are different and I’m a bit of a self-admitted food snob.  But I decided to head out to try the #2 ranked restaurant in Loja – Mama Lola – which serves traditional Lojano cuisine.  I’m sooooo glad I did!

The first thing to know about Mama Lola is that it is extremely busy with locals coming in for lunch on weekends!  I was the only gringo there, but there was a queue out the door waiting for tables.  In the end I was joined at my table by 2 locals – a very common practice here and a wonderful way to meet new people and practice my spanish 🙂

Mama Lola restaurant packed at lunchtime - Loja - Ecuador

I ordered the Cecina, which is a very thin pork steak marinated in cumin and garlic, and one of the most typical dishes of Loja.   It usually comes with yuca and other accompaniments, and, in typical Ecuadorian fashion, I was presented with about 3 times as much food as I could possibly eat.

Cecina at Mama Lola - Loja - Ecuador

Yes – that’s potato bake, salad, pork, corn (top right), popcorn, two different sauces, and you can’t actually see the large chunks of yuca hiding underneath the pork steak.  It was very good, but I have to admit that I still prefer the fritada (braised pork) or hornado (slow-roasted pork) that you find in Quito.

Despite not being able to finish my meal, I spied the most incredible looking desert over on the next table and I figured I had to try it.  It turned out to be an amazingly light and fluffy cheesecake – the best I’ve ever eaten – and I have to admit I almost ordered a second one to take home with me!

Best cheesecake ever at Mama Loja - Ecuador. And beautifully presented!

Beautiful presentation as well!

And can you guess how much my cecina, my cheesecake and a large limonada drink cost me?  USD$7.25.   Ecuador is a fantastically cheap country for eating.

Repe at the Mercado Central

The other “must try” dish from Loja is a thick, hearty soup called Repe.  It is made from a base of green bananas, onions, garlic, milk, cheese and coriander, and tends to have lots of “bits” in it.

Repe de arveja con guineo - Loja - Ecuador

The one I tried at the Mercado Central was the Repe de Arveja con Guineo  – or Ecuadorian split pea and green banana soup.  And once again, it was cheap as chips (USD$1) and absolutely delicious.  Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad soup in Ecuador.  They really know how to do them well! 

I accompanied this with a typical herbal tea: Horchata Lojana – a warm, very sugary, rose-flavoured drink with spices.  It was OK, but I don’t particularly like sugary drinks (despite my sweet tooth), so it was both the first and last time for Horchata.

Horchata lojana - Loja - Ecuador

On my way out of the market, I decided to buy a tray of Lojano sweets including Bocadillos Lojanos (small squares of panela and peanuts) and Lojano figs. Not sure what the other ones were, but the bocadillos were definitely the pick of them!

Sweets from Loja - Ecuador

And on a last minute whim as I headed for the exit – I decided to try Sábila.  I had no idea what it was (the lady I bought it from couldn’t explain it to me) and I had never seen the word anywhere before – so why not!   Oh what a big, big mistake!

Sábila drink - Loja - Ecuador

Turns out Sábila is a drink made with Aloe Vera.  And although it has almost no flavour, I could not cope at all with the texture of it.  The best way I can describe it was that it was like drinking a jellyfish, and every sip I took, the aloe would stick to my lip and trail the glass as I moved it away from my mouth. 

It was beyond revolting!

I pride myself on being able to eat almost anything, but I have to admit I only managed about 3 sips and couldn’t do any more.  I gave the almost full glass back to the lady and took my leave 🙁

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Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja – Ecuador

When deciding what I’d do for the 4 days I’d have to wait for Pedro and Raúl to return from the Galapagos, I discovered that the timing would overlap very nicely with the end of the 2nd annual Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja (otherwise known as the Loja Festival).  And given that I’d wanted to visit Loja last year while I was in Ecuador – it was really a no-brainer as to where I’d go.

In summary – the Festival was brilliant!  First up was one of the two shows I bought tickets to.

Itzel Cuevas – La Ilustre Desconocida

Banner for La Ilustre Desconocida

The short description for La Ilustre Desconocida says:

Rosa – a cleaning lady – has read a story before going to bed, and in her dream has made a decision.

Ahhhhhhhhhh…   So that was what it was about!! 

I have to admit that I was very lost on the details right from the very beginning 🙁   There was a lot of dialogue between Rosa and a sea-captain (both played by the actress, Itzel Cuevas.  I think the voices she had to put on contributed to my lack of understanding), with the gist being that Rosa was going to ditch her cleaning job and run away to the sea for a life of excitement and adventure.   Well, at least I think that was the gist…  

Images taken during Ilustre Desconocida - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 

It was a one-woman show and very impressive given the lack of props and the amount of dialogue.  But unfortunately not my thing.

Accordzéâm – Classique Instinct

The other show I bought tickets to was a very different experience!  

Banner for Classique Instinct

Simply put – if you ever get the chance to see Classique Instinct – do it.  It is the most incredible display of musicianship, performance and humour, and I absolutely loved it! 

How to do justice in describing it??!! 

A group of 5 musicians – a violin player, a double-bass player, a percussionist-drummer, a guitar-oboe player, and the most charismatic accordion player you have ever seen, play around with the main themes from Schubert’s Trout Quintet and Dvořák’s New World Symphony – re-interpreting them through every musical style known to the world.

Accordzéâm on stage - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 

Seriously!  Every. Single. Musical. Style.

Accordzéâm - Classique Instinct - double-bass tango - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 

Here is the double bass player tangoing with his instrument

It turns out that someone actually recorded the whole performance (naughty naughty)!  But to get an idea of what I’m talking about – here’s one of my favourite parts – the tango!  This leads into the violinist soloing what I believe to be a very poor busking effort (like what you’d hear from a still-not-very-good-player on the street trying to earn a quick dollar), which in turn leads into a Scottish-sounding version (open to interpretation), which leads into what sounds like an Irish jig, which leads into…   You get the picture 🙂    And this went on for 1.5 hours!  Seriously – it was incredible!

Throw in a story about the trout (narrated by the violin player in a very-hard-to-understand Spanish accent – he’s French after all, not a native Spanish speaker), and brilliant movement comedy (particularly from the accordion player) and it was an hour and a half of absolute enchantment.  Everyone was mesmerized.  And laughing.  And thoroughly enjoying themselves.

These guys are actually a French group called Accordzéâm who were invited to be one of the international guests for the festival, and I’m soooooo thankful that I got to see them play!

Street Art

There was a lot more to the Festival than just paid performances, however.  One of the key participatory activities of the Festival was the fact that anyone could grab some chalk and produce artwork on the streets that had been blocked off for the duration.

Young people creating street artist - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017

Everyone from little kids to some incredibly talented artists created their canvases each day – only to have them scrubbed off each night, ready for the next group of artists.   There were some really amazing creations!

Several very talented Street Artists - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017

And even the Ambos (ambulance workers) got into it!

Street Art from Ambulance workers - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017

A variant on this idea were the blackboards (chalkboards) set up by the Universidad Internacional de Ecuador, which would pose different questions each day for passers-by to answer.  These questions ranged from ideas on how Loja could be improved to life goals – it was fascinating to read some of the answers given!

Opinion boards at the Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017

 

Festival of Lights

Similar to what I experienced the first weekend I arrived in Quito, Loja also lit up its key buildings in a Fiesta de la Luz. 

Festival de Luz - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017

Fortunately the crowds weren’t as bad as in Quito – and it is amazing to see how they pick out the features of the buildings to guide the theme for the lighting.

Performances

There were loads of more informal performances throughout the streets of Loja both day and night as well.   This group of older women were showcasing that “you are never too old” for dancing latino style, or anything else for that matter.

 

And of course there was the ubiquitous drumming group.  Love listening to these guys.

 

There were loads more things going on as well, and I had a brilliant time strolling the streets with my new friend (and Airbnb host) Fransiska.  We even got stopped by some students for a video interview about what we loved about Ecuador – we were two of the very few foreigners that I saw at the Festival!

Decorated Streets - Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017

Crowds and decorated main thoroughfare for the Loja Festival

 
 I really hope the Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja goes from strength to strength over the coming years, because it was a fantastic time!
 
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Hiking Ecuador – Podocarpus National Park near Loja

My original plan last year was to travel from Cuenca to Loja and Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador before heading to Peru.  That was scuppered when I had to hightail it to Peru directly from Cuenca to arrive in time to do the incredible 10-day Huayhuash Circuit trek.  So when my friends Pedro and Raúl decided they wanted to visit the Galapagos for 5 days (I’m going there for 2 weeks later in December), I headed to Loja – just in time to catch the end of the Festival of Loja and the International Arts Festival.  

Even with only a few days to explore Loja, I was determined to do one hike in the nearby Podocarpus National Park.  So I arranged a taxi through my amazing Airbnb host, Fransiska, out to the trail-head of the Los Miradores Hike, to arrive as soon as the park opened (I had to get back for my first show at the Festival after all). 

The sign at the start of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

Can I just say, this is an absolutely incredible hiking trail!  But not for you if you suffer from vertigo.

The park ranger told me it was better to hike in an anti-clockwise direction, which actually meant following the signs for the lakes route, rather than the above sign for the miradores.  His rationale was that this way I would only have to walk 2km uphill followed by 3km downhill.  Sounded good to me!

If you follow this advice, the trail starts off in thick forest on a well-defined path.

Views along the trail on Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I cannot describe how beautiful it is, and how many birds you see – including this guy that seemed to be following me for most of the way.

Close-up of a bird on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I seemed to be the only person in the park – just me and the sounds of nature.  Absolute heaven!

The weather was not the best

Dense vegetation seen from the trail of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja in Ecuador

but there was a spectacular showcase of gorgeous flowers wherever you looked

Various flowers on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

and awesome plants as well.

Various plants on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I got the occasional glimpse out to the valley to the South

View down to the valley from Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

before breaking through the tree-line and onto the open ridge where the viewpoints are.

Me at the sign indicating the highest point of Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

No, I didn’t get to see much unfortunately.

Up until this point, the hike had been fairly easy, ignoring the usual challenges of hiking at altitude.   So I was very surprised to discover that it quickly turned much more technical for the next 2 km!  Essentially, on this section, you hike along the top of a reasonably narrow ridge that ascends and descends (I swear it was an M. C. Escher mountain!), and has steep drop-offs on either side.   Add in a pretty stiff wind with gusts strong enough to make me stumble, and it was an “interesting” time!

View along the narrow ridge of Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

You can just see the path tracking all the way along the ridge line

I had read online about using attached ropes for parts of this section, and this was not the first time I had used ropes while hiking recently.   However, I do believe they should have started them earlier than they did!  There was one place in particular that gave me significant pause – wondering how the heck I was going to get down the rock without slipping and falling and killing myself.

Ropes to assist in the very steep sections of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

The top image is the large rock I had to figure out how to get down without the assistance of a rope. That was my main “moment” on the whole hike.

But it was spectacular!   

Various views from Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

Despite the crap weather and the fact I couldn’t see any of the distant vistas from the miradores, I would say that this is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done – thanks to the diversity and lushness of the vegetation.

I eventually made it back to the trail-head and then began the 8km hike down to the highway along the access road.  When I signed out from the park, it turns out I was the only person to visit that day!  

Recommendation  

If you are in Loja – you should definitely visit the Podocarpus National Park.  It is beautiful!  There are 2 shorter hikes that are much easier, and one longer hike that I’ll do next time I visit.  If you aren’t stable on your feet, are uncertain about rock scrambling, or suffer from vertigo, I wouldn’t recommend Los Miradores Trail. 

Also, ask your taxi to take you to the start of the trail-heads at the refugio to save you an 8km uphill walk.   It’s much nicer to walk back down it, and very easy to catch a bus back to Loja from the junction with the main road.

Time:  I took 5 hours to complete what is touted as a 3 hour walk.  I reckon it is longer than 3 hours if you take care over the more technical bits.  Then again, I did spend a lot of time watching birds and taking photos…

Cost:  I managed to get a taxi all the way to the trail-head for USD$8 – about 1/2 the price usually quoted.  There is no cost to enter the park, and the bus back to Loja cost USD$0.50.

 

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Playa Los Frailes near Puerto Lopez – Ecuador

Aside from wanting to stay somewhere less touristy, the other main reason we chose Puerto Lopez as our coastal destination in Ecuador was its proximity to what is touted as one of  Ecuador’s best beaches – Los Frailes

It is literally about 10 minutes up the road, so we hopped a bus heading north and asked to be let out at the entrance to the park.

Signs at the start of the hike to Los Frailles beach near Puerto Lopez - Ecuador

From there it was about a 45-minute hike through extremely dry shrubbery that rustled at every moment with the movement of millions of lizards.  The Australian in me always thinks of snakes when I hear a rustle in the bushes, but fortunately we only saw one of those!

Dry shrubs line the hiking path to Los Frailles beach, and one of the lizards that was making all the noise - Ecuador

The hike takes you to visit a few other smaller beaches along the way

Different views along the hike to Los Frailles beach, including some smaller beaches you can visit

before arriving at an admittedly not-brilliant lookout over Los Frailes.  I know it is a National Park – but they really do need to build the lookout so it is higher and has a clear view 😉

Partially obscured view of the horseshoe shape of Los Frailles beach from the lookout along the hike.

They really need to build the lookout higher

Slightly reminiscent of Wineglass Bay in Tasmania, I’m sure it would have looked brilliantly blue and absolutely amazing under clear skies and bright sun.   But it wasn’t certain that we’d be lucky and the clouds would disappear, so after about 20 minutes, we headed down to the beach itself.

As it turned out, by the time we actually arrived on the sand, the sun had come out in all of its glory and we spent the next several hours swimming (well, Pedro and Raúl swam) and relaxing on the beach.  Given I don’t particularly like swimming, and it wasn’t terribly warm in the water, I walked to the end of beach to explore, and see what I could see 🙂

Rocks at the end of Playa Los Frailles, looking back along the horseshoe of the main beach - Ecuador

To get back to the main road, we had the option of hiking back the way we had come, or catching a mototaxi for $1 each.   We decided upon the latter and then waited on the side of the road (fortunately not for too long) for a bus back to Puerto Lopez

So happy that the sun decided to show itself today!

 

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Agua Blanca community tourism initiative – Ecuador

The not-exactly-great-for-enjoying-the-beach weather during our stay in Puerto Lopez meant that we ended up going on a 4hr excursion to the small community of Agua Blanca.  We probably wouldn’t have made this visit if it had been sunny, and that would have been a shame, because it is a lovely 1/2-day trip to an amazing community tourism initiative!

We caught a taxi out there and were met by a local community guide who explained that Agua Blanca is quite an extensive archaeological site, with evidence of 6 different historical cultures.  He then took us on a guided tour of the small but very well done museum – explaining many of the pieces and how they fit in to the history of the area.  The tour is very informative (only in Spanish), but several of the main artefacts in the museum also had English descriptions.

Different archaeological artifacts on display in the Agua Blanca museum

There were several really impressive items, but the ones that captured my imagination were the burial urns.   There were examples in the museum itself, but also complete urns still in their original locations outside (protected by plastic boxes).

Whole burial urns still in place, and a broken one showing how the remains were placed - Agua Blanca museum - Ecuador

From there, our guide led us on a short and easy walk through a landscape that was part wild and part farmed.  I was amazed to see Blue-Crowned Mot Mots several times on our walk, I didn’t realise that they were found this far south!

Hiking out to the sulfur pool at Agua Blanca near Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

The goal of our walk was a large sulfur pool with purported medicinal properties.   It was really beautiful, and really smelly (as you can imagine), and although I didn’t go in, Pedro and Raúl (water-lovers that they are) did enjoy a dip in the cold water.

Sulfur pool at Agua Blanca, near Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

Our guide left us there to enjoy the pool and mud massages (if so desired) for as long as we wanted.  Then we headed back to the museum via a lookout that offered great views over the valley that the community occupies.

Vistas from the viewpoint at Agua Blanca near Puerto Lopez in Ecuador

Overall, it was an incredibly well done tour and really fantastic to see a community preserving its history and using tourism to improve life for all.

Recommendation

I highly recommend the tour of the Agua Blanca community if you have a spare half day in Puerto Lopez.  Make sure you take your swimmers if you love the water!

Cost:  $10 for a taxi there and back to Puerto Lopez.  $5 entrance, which includes the guided tour and visit to the sulfur pool

Time:  Up to you really. But 3-4 hours is probably sufficient.

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Puerto Lopez – Ecuador

In 4 months of living in Ecuador this year (and 1 month traveling through Ecuador last year), I’ve never been to the beach.   What can I say?  I’m really not a beach person! 

But my friends Pedro and Raúl most definitely are, so our first port of call when they arrived to visit, was the small beach town of Puerto Lopez – an 11 hour overnight bus ride from Quito.

View of Puerto Lopez from the lookout - Ecuador

Most tourists head straight for Salinas or Montañita, both of which are a little further south, but we were keen for the “fishing village” rather than “tourist trap” feel, and Puerto Lopez turned out to be a great choice!  It may have a different vibe during the peak of whale-watching season (it is one of the best places in Ecuador to see whales migrating), but it was pretty sleepy and definitely not touristy for our visit.

Unfortunately, it being November, we didn’t have the best weather – so we spent a lot of time walking along the foreshore

beach huts and fishing boats along the beach in Puerto Lopez - Ecuador

and watching the fishermen run the gauntlet of birds while they brought the fish in from the boats.

Scenes at the fish market as hundreds of birds swoop the men carrying buckets of fish from the boats - Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

In fact, the fish market is one of the most fascinating parts of town, and where you can find most of the locals as well.

The beach and town of Puerto Lopez behind the fishing boats that sustain the community for most of the year

The beach and town of Puerto Lopez behind the fishing boats that sustain the community for most of the year

There was a glimpse of what Puerto Lopez might be like during whale season, with make-shift (but somehow permanent) bars lined up along the beach near the main part of town (you can see the umbrellas in the image above).  It was quite amazing the variety of cocktails on offer at each one, but it was all fairly quiet during our stay, and quite often we were the only ones sitting on the loungers drinking the most amazing Maracuyá (passionfruit) smoothies I’ve found anywhere.  

We stayed 3 days in Puerto Lopez, one of which was specifically to visit Los Frailes Beach – touted to be the most beautiful in Ecuador.  But the bad weather also meant that we did an excursion out to Agua Blanca, a small community just up the road, and one which has developed an incredible community-based tourism initiative.