The Middle of the World
The Middle of the World
After 8 months of often intense travel through Mexico, Central America and most recently Colombia, we were ready for a bit of a breather. Soon after we crossed the border into Ecuador, the roads changed from the poorly paved, treacherous, two lane roads through the mountain ranges of Colombia to well paved, relatively safe, four lane highway through the Avenida de los Volcanoes of Ecuador. We started to breathe more deeply and ease into what would be a relaxing month in Ecuador.
Perhaps the hardest thing about traveling in Ecuador is deciding what to do and where to go. Despite its small size, Ecuador has so much offer, from birding in cloud forests to exploring jungles to hiking up huge volcanoes to scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands to surfing on the coast. The combination of these adventures with beautiful colonial towns, friendly locals and indigenous communities makes Ecuador, in our opinion, one of the best countries to visit in the world.
After a few days of R&R at a well organized campground outside of Ibarra we headed to Otavalo, an indigenous community in northern Ecuador. Otavalo is a great base from which to explore the surrounding indigenous communities and to hike up the nearby volcanoes. We chose to summit Fuya Fuya. But Cerro Negro (close to Fuya Fuya) and Imbabura are also worthwhile ascents.
The indigenous communities surrounding Otavalo are authentic and, in general, open to foreigners. In one of these communities we visited the house of a family that weaves fantastic tapestries using traditional techniques.
Of course, no trip to Otavalo is complete without a trip to the Otavalo market where we stocked up on gifts for ourselves and others. This is not a great place to buy traditional weavings. But it is a place to buy good quality Alpaca and wool blankets, ponchos, scarves and sweaters for super cheap prices.
Ecuador offers some of the most amazing birding in the world. And Mindo is perhaps the best place in the Ecuador to do it. Unfortunately, it was raining in most of Ecuador when we visited Mindo. But we nevertheless spent a few days exploring the amazing trails at the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve (https://www.bellavistacloudforest.com) a birding lodge deep and high in the cloud forest to the east of Mindo. We were in search of the blue-colored Plate Billed Mountain Toucan, which we heard, but did not see. But we did see some amazing birds including numerous types of Hummingbirds, Parrots , Tanagers and even a few harder to see “target birds” including an amazing Crested Quetzal, and Yellow Crowned Quetzal. We’ve had some amazing bird experiences on our trip, including in the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sancturary in Belize and in Los Quetzales Natioanl park and on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. But Mindo was as good and perhaps even better than these other destinations.
During a detour to the Papallacta hot springs to the east of Quito, we ran into a French expat who told us all about the bad things that the Chinese are doing in Ecuador. Over the last 20 years, the Chinese have “convinced” the leadership of Ecuador to buy Chinese products and sign contracts with Chinese companies. Thee contracts have include contracts to build new hydroelectric power plants and roads, buy new buses and even a contract to allow the Chinese to fish the waters off of the coast of Ecuador. Unfortunately, most of these contracts were a bad idea. The vast majority of the hydroelectric power plants never went live. Many of the buses that the Chinese sold to Ecuador are no longer running. And the Chinese are overfishing the Ecuadorian waters which will likely result in the collapse of fish populations, including in the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands. But the reality in Ecuador, and in many other places in the world, the Chinese have picked up where the Americans have left off. For many decades, US companies and the US government have exploited Central and
South American countries using similar techniques which are well documented in the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. So unfortunately, there is a dark side to the new, four lane highways that we rode through northern Ecuador.
As we made our way south through the Avenue of the Volcanoes, we made detours to even bigger volcanoes. One of these was Chimborazo which at 6,262 meters (20,564 feet) is Ecuador’s highest mountain. What’s cool about Chimborazo, in addition to how beautiful it is, is the fact that you can drive to the 1st refugio which sits at 4,800 meters (15,744 feet). For us, this was a test of the high altitude capabilities of Thor, our 2006 Dodge Ram 3500. And it performed admirably. We had to move relatively slowly up the windy road past small herds of wild Vicunas and Andean Foxes. But at 15,744 feet we still had plenty of power. From the First Refugio you can climb to the second refugio at 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) and have a glimpse of the amazing summit, covered in a huge glacier, almost all to yourself. If you have some technical skill, this would be a great mountain to summit since it would only involve a day of climbing from the 2nd refugio. Unfortunately, though, our ice axes (and other mountaineering gear) are sitting in a box in Boulder.
One of the things we learned about Ecuador is that it’s a top destination for expats, especially retirees. Quito, Cuenca and Vilcabamba (or as the locals sometimes call it Gringobamba) are top retirement destinations. With beautiful property, cheap prices, spring-like weather and a stable political system, it’s not hard to figure out why Ecuador is such a popular place for expats. Apparently, in all three of these locations, you can rent a nice 2 bedroom apartment for $300 (nice) to $500 (plush) per month. And according to several expats we talked to, you can buy healthcare coverage for as little as $40 per month.
Before moving onto Peru we spent some time in Vilcabamba, a day of driving away from a remote part of Northern Peru. We wished we had had more time to explore Ecuador, and the month seemed to fly by in comparison to other countries… but perhaps it’s always a good idea to leave one or two adventures for future trips. And in the case of Ecuador, we left many. It’s definitely a country we will return to someday. And it’s a country that we’d recommend that everyone visit at least once in their life.