Ecuador - the only time in your life when someone shouts "shark" and you swim towards them...

Published: April 9th 2013
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Sealion swimming with usSealion swimming with usSealion swimming with us

One of the amazing experiences when snorkelling (photo by ben)
At the beginning of March my family flew out to meet me in Ecuador for what must have been our first long holiday together for nearly 15 years! We had “agreed”, that we would look to take advantage of my Spanish language and do the trip in a manner more akin to the way I travel – i.e. not having any fixed plans apart from the start and finish dates, and organising things as we go along according to what we hear is good. Obviously there was a little more pressure on getting things reasonably well organised, as I didn't think my parents would take too kindly to sleeping a night in a cockroach infested fleapit because we turned up late in a town that was fully booked because we hadn't realised that it was the weekend of the festival of the Lesser Speckled Andean Condor or something similar!

The first big task was for me to try and organise a last minute deal to the Galapogas islands. Research from the UK had shown prices to be prohibitive, but I had maintained that from my experiences when I went to the islands 7 years ago there were last minute bargains to be had if you were brave enough to wait it out!! Luckily it turned out to be the case, as by negotiating with a boat operator directly, I managed to find an 8 day cruise on a first class boat (not the tourist class boat I had been expecting) that left the next day, for well below half its list price. Obviously, its still a fair fistful of change – but it definitely turned out to be worth it for the once in a lifetime experience (or twice in a lifetime now in my case!) that we enjoyed.

To me the islands conjure up images of an area generally unspoilt by man, and while that may be virtually the case today, an awful lot of effort has been expended in the last 30 years or so to try and make this the case. The islands were declared a national park in 1959, but the marine reserve (second largest in the world – a 20 mile limit beyond the farthest point of each island) was only confirmed in 1986. Fishing inside the marine reserve remains an issue – especially for sharks for their fins, this has been partly combated by the presence of Ecuador's second largest naval base on the island. Introduced species such as goats, pigs and feral cats wreaked havoc on native populations during the 70's and 80's, but extensive culling programs have apparently been broadly successful – especially on the largest island of Isabella.

It was really interesting listening to our guide describe some of his childhood days – heading out with his father for three or four days at a time to track down and shoot the invasive animals. He said that goat and pig was very often on the menu! It seems that protections have really come full circle and are now incredibly strict (be that for the benefit of the environment, to keep the tourist dollars flowing or a bit of both!). For instance, the locals cannot use the sand from the beaches to help build their homes – it has to be imported!

The first class boat did enhance the experience greatly -the rooms were spacious, there was a huge amount of deck-space for everyone to relax, and the chef was an absolute legend, constantly magicking up incredible dishes from the tiniest of galley kitchens! Although, in all honesty, you
Fighting for deckchair spaceFighting for deckchair spaceFighting for deckchair space

The local residents hit the beach in Isabella very early!
could probably row around the islands in a dingy and still have an unbelievable experience as they are just so unique.

There are other places in the world where I'm sure you can see wildlife that rivals the Galapagos, but I'm sure that nowhere in the world the wildlife is as uninhibited by human presence as these island, meaning the opportunity to see the birds and animals at such close quarters is just so special and so incredible.

The itinerary of our trip had worked out well for me as it only repeated one day from my last trip – and that happened to be one of my favourite days, visiting the amazing black lava fields of Isla Santiago, summiting to the viewpoint on Bartholomew island for the famous panorama including pinnacle rock and visits to the excitingly named north and south beach! The day was topped off with a triple dose of snorkelling, through which we were able to see sharks, manta and stingrays, penguins, multicoloured starfish and even some unexploded torpedoes from when the Americans used the islands in the latter stages of World War II – partly to provide protection for the Panama canal!!
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These guys were very agreeable underwater, generally spending their time feeding so you could stay with them for long periods. (photo by ben)

We also got very lucky with the weather – with clear trips to see the volcanoes around Isabella island, and virtually no rain when we were out exploring the islands. Our snorkelling was also more successful than I remember last time with sightings of hammerhead and white tipped reef sharks, multiple penguins, both green and hawksbill turtles, flightless cormorants and fur seals. There were also lots of young chicks being reared by their parents – especially memorable were the huge bundles of fluff otherwise known as masked or Nazca boobies. Constantly demanding food and endlessly inquisitive they were great fun to be around.

But the undoubted stars of any trip to the Galapagos Islands are the sealions. They are adorably cute and playful, constantly yapping and barking at each other. They seem incongruously clumsy out of the water, but are balletically graceful within it - and even if they are only sleeping (which they seem to do a lot!!) they bring a huge smile to your face!! From napping on deckchairs or on local fishing boats, to lazily open one eye to assess your prescence if you stir them from their slumbers as you walk by, I could watch them all day. One of my favourite memories came on the final full day, when we were in the transport dinghy close to shore watching a playful sealion pup bound along the sand in the ungainly manner that I had come to love, unsuccessfully pursuing an oystercatcher! It was a great memory to round off such a special trip!

Before heading back to the mainland to pick up a hire car which would allow us to take on the next stage of the holiday independently, we had booked an extra day on the main island of Santa Cruz where we visited Turtle Bay. It was a beach with sand so soft you could have walked up and down it for hours, and when you were in the sea there was a wonderful, almost exfolliating sensation as the waves threw the soft sand against your body!!

After a successful walking tour of the capital Quito led by yours truly - including the obligatory churches, a museum and plenty of parks – along with well spaced stops for beer and cake – we headed north to Otavalo, the “unmissable” market town north of Quito, famed for
Pelican landingPelican landingPelican landing

These guys seemed more like cluster bombs rather than missiles as they scooped up gallons of water and I assume some fish as well!! (photo by bou)
it textiles and jewellery. For some reason I had been expecting some sort of dazzling mountain setting where the locals brought their wares to sell among a blaze of traditional colour. In reality, the main square was similar to almost every other main square in South America aside from the fact there was more concrete and less grass to allow for the market which dominated it. I soon realised that with textiles and jewellery very much being the mainstay of the market I wasn't in the key demographic – but my sister and mum loved it and picked up some great bargains, and I took the opportunity to purchase a lime juicer from one of the tat shops so my cuba libres back home are going to taste extra special!!

Heading south we re-crossed the equator and as we were following a different road, found that someone had knocked up a monument, so it seemed obligatory that even though it was raining we needed to stop and take some snaps to show the Freitag family straddling the equator. We then spent a few minutes driving around the back streets near the monument to find the actual equator according to the GPS on the sat nav. It may have been childish, but everyone cheered when we finally found a latitude of all the zeros!!

Our “toy” 4x4 then had its first test as we headed to Cotopaxi national park, with the last few kilometres being on an old jeep trail. The car just about made it and we were rewarded with a lovely stay in the Secret Garden hostel. As the hostel was in the middle of nowhere 3 home cooked meals were provided each day, a fire was roaring each evening – and there was even a jacuzzi to while away any aches and pains!! The main draw of the hostel was that it enjoyed great views of Cotopaxi – at 5,895m Ecuador's second highest mountain (volcano), but as I'll be returning to try and climb this in a week or two's time I'll wax lyrical about it at a later point!!

While at the Secret Garden we went out for a morning's horse riding, with the looming hulk of Cotopaxi always visible in our views. Considering I'd had the sum total of about an hour on horseback before in my life, I was pretty pleased with how things went (not falling off was the main criteria!!). I was soon confident enough to let the horse canter for short periods – and we all returned safely with no damage done. Or that was until the aches and pains from a four and a half hour ride made themselves known shortly after. Safe to safe, I was walking funny for a good few days afterwards!!

Filling up a 4x4 in the UK is usually accompanied by a requirement to re-mortgage your house, but Ecuador – with its significant oil reserves – must have the cheapest petrol I've ever seen. $1.45 a US gallon – that's 25p a litre! Madness! Admittedly its not directly comparable as Ecuadorian petrol is a measly 82 octane – about as explosive as a fireproof blanket that's been soaked in water for a week (perhaps accounting for some of our toy 4x4's lousy performance)!! However, all is not lost as the “super” only comes in at 35pa litre. Safe to say when a full tank cost $18 I wasn't too concerned about driving conservatively to save fuel!

The next stage of our journey allowed us to really take advantage of the car,
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Just for once! (photo by ben)
drive round the Quilotoa loop – a 2 day trip along rural roads, through remote villages and all the while enjoying incredible views of spectacular valleys and gravity defying terraced hillsides. A surprise bonus of completing the loop independently was that both days we were able to stop for lunch at local haciendas – working farms that also provided beautiful overnight accommodation. On both days the prices for lunch and potentially accommodation were incredibly reasonable, and the owners of these family run businesses were kind enough to take the time to show us round the workings of their dairy farms – we even bought some farm produced cheese from one of them.

It was a great experience for me as its a way of life that I never normally have the flexibility to see, given that I'm usually at the whim of a maniac bus driver who is trying to get to the next city as quickly as possible, and the warmth of the welcome we were given was fantastic.

The highlight was the Quilotoa volcano that gives the loop its name. The huge crater lake filled with blue-green water was a beautiful site – there were even a couple of wild llamas that seemed willing to pose for me to create the ultimate clichéd photo! An early start had meant that we got lucky with the weather and enjoyed clear views and sunshine, and had finished our exploration before the tourist buses arrived and the clouds rolled in.

We were back on tarmac roads for the trip to Baños – famed for its hot springs – which we didn't actually bother visiting in the end! Instead we had a great time in probably our best overall guesthouse of the trip considering its price. $32 between Sara and I got us a “suite” complete with two floors, four beds and two toilets. Not bad going! (

Sara and I then booked a $22 white water rafting trip, which turned out to be a real highlight. The entry point for the raft looked pretty placid so I wasn't expecting much more than a gentle paddle downstream – that was until at the first set of rapids we dropped into a hole and a wave came crashing up over the boat and over our heads, setting the scene for the rest of the exhilarating journey!

There was no rest for me on our final day in Baños as I hired a bike to ride the (generally!!) downhill 35km “Avenue of the Waterfalls”, trying in vain to keep up with the rest of the family in the car. Having just visited such impressive falls in Peru I wasn't expecting much, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. We visited three sets of falls during the day, including one where we could take a “tarabita” (think wire sided metal cage that is trying to be a cable car but coming up some way short!!) which actually took you directly above the falls to give you a very unusual perspective as you watched the water crash down underneath you. At the finals set of falls, the Devil's Cauldron, the walkways extended up to within a couple of feet of the side of the main cataract – giving an impressive and slightly damp demonstration of the waterfall's power!

Luckily, the bike fitted in the boot of the car so there was no need for me to try and cycle 35km back uphill, and we had a very funny meal in one of the locals' restaurants overlooking the river. Here, a rule that we'd established throughout Ecuador seemed to ring even more true – that the only drink you can order and get quickly in Ecuador is a beer. Even if you ordered a coke or sprite that came from the self-same fridge, the staff would inexplicably forget about it every single time and you'd be lucky if you got it before the main course came! It led to Sara, the only non beer drinker, spending a lot of time thirsty waiting hopefully for something to pass her parched lips!! On that particular occasion when her main course of chopped up chicken bone arrived before the coke it was a double-whammy, but it did have the rest of the family in stitches!!

We had a couple of nights in Cuenca, home of a vast array of churches (apparently at least 52 – one for every Sunday of the year), and a centre of production for Montichristi hats (which we apparently erroneously know as Panama hats). The Ecuadorians are quite upset that one of their finest exports is not credited to them – apparently stemming from a combination of the hats all being exported to Europe through Panama, and for their popularity in keeping the labourers who built the Panama canal free of sunstroke. We visited a factory showing us the techniques that used to make, shape and press the hats – and Sara and I were so convinced that we ended up snapping up an “Ecuador” hat a-piece!

All that was left was to visit the Cajas National park, known for its bleak and rugged scenery, and on the day we passed through the weather was pretty much a match!! It had been a lovely 3 weeks with the family. We perhaps got lucky with the fact the sights, accommodation and restaurants that we chose consistently working out so well, but I think this was probably a reflection of Ecuador being a country with a lot to offer. I'm taking great memories away from our time together and I'm sure the rest of the Freitag clan is as well.

It was soon back to reality as I said my goodbyes on the roadside, and as my family continued to the airport I swapped the comfy driver's seat of our 4×4 for the trailer of a van and 10 sweaty locals as I hitched a lift back to Cuenca!!

Ecuador had surprised and impressed me - I had suggested it as a possible destination for the family as the Galapagos islands are just unique in the world, but there was a huge amount to enjoy in the rest of the country. From high mountains and lakes, to local crafts, to friendly locals and we didn't even get to the coastal or Amazon regions which would have shown us even more of what Ecuador has to offer. I really got a sense when travelling through Ecuador that it is a country on the up – a stronger sense than I had felt in any of the other countries I had so far visited. Of course there is some discontent among the local people, with a sense of inequality and corruption at the top levels of the government, but this seems true of every country in South America and to some degree every country around the world!! The development of infrastructure – especially transport networks – and the seemingly sustainable way that tourist development is being approached made me feel that Ecuador is managing its petrodollars well, and if this continues it should bring tangible benefits and improved quality of life to all its citizens and it is definitely a country that I'd head back to.

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